The Reality of Silos: Healthy vs Unhealthy?
The word silos in an organization has caused many to shake their heads in meetings, comment on their destructive tendencies in the company walls, and seek outside expertise on ‘how to break down silos’ from consultants, articles, and books.
And that can be true - silos represent situations that can be destructive, can encase entire groups of employees into limited vision, and can remain steadfast in its semi-broken processes even in the face of change.
Thinking of silos in the negative context is what we have been taught, but as a business community, are they always bad?
Are silos really at fault? Or is closed, silo-type thinking the culprit, from a business-unit down to an individual person?
Are silos really responsible for not sharing information? Or do those behaviors happen in any type of structure?
Are silos a curse upon an organization? Or are they inevitable part of every operation, even down to the team level?
While an in-depth look at silos is not the purpose of this article, I am going to posit two semi-controversial items that I have seen and thought about over the decades regarding these structures. This means that maybe we adjust our ‘thinking and demonization’ of silos just a bit, at least the healthy ones.
The basic premise? 1. Silos are okay and maybe even inevitable, but they need to be porous so transparency and collaboration can happen; 2. Not everyone in an expert organization can understand every ‘expert language’ that is spoken, so embrace and engage the expert-filled healthy silos.
1. Silos can be healthy and functional; they aren’t all bad. Isn’t that kind of crazy talk?! Well, it’s not.
Many organizations have some ‘basic element’ needs - they have to live off of certain expertise, grow it substantially to remain strategically competitive in the markets they are in, and hold a responsibility to remain efficient in their work and functionality. That actually requires concerted focus in that expertise area, allowing experts to work with experts to grow their knowledge, and implementing real processes to adjust efficiently. Iron sharpens iron, right?
This means that some type of vehicle needs to be in place to make those basic elements happen, protect them, and collaborate with the entire organization to positively impact across the board.
Enter: the healthy silo.
A porous, healthy silo allows experts to converse in the language they need to in order to be the most efficient and to grow expertise even further. The concentration is upon the work being done and its impact to the experiences (internal, customer, external), not on trying to help everyone understand their expertise at all times. ‘Silo-type thinking’ can severely damage this reality, but that can also happen in any type of organizational structure.
The caveat - transparency is the key, and a collaborative communicator (language translator) is essential to making it healthy for rest of the organization.
2. Focusing on experiences means focusing less on internal politics. Without your customer focus and how your internal parts fit in the mix, the organization can die.
I’ve seen many healthy “porous siloed” organizations explode in proficiency and achievement due to having a nurturing, expert environment in which to focus on internal, customer, and external experiences. Every one of these had experts in place to ‘translate’ languages and create connections from one to another (IT to business…marketing to finance…etc.) AND (most importantly) to translate back into the silos for adjustment.
This type of design allows an organization to concentrate on the criticality of the work and the impact on the experience, not just on completing a job. Additionally, there exists the ability to “maximize the ‘surface area’ of the organization by connecting as many employees as possible with the external environment.” 1 If an employee is concentrating a large amount of energy on the internal politics of the organization, then they aren’t concentrating much energy on their customer or the impact of their expertise.
The caveat - the entire system has to be talked about, diagrammed, and its connections understood for a silo to be healthy and the strategic experiences understood. It’s about expertise value to the organization and having the “collaborative holes” (porosity) in that structure to get information and ideas flowing.
The Bottom Line
The word silo is too vague to demonize and try to demolish. The various personas of a silo run from the great (expertise, critical, unique) to the horrible (closed silo-type thinking, calcified silo) and from organizational to a person.
Geeky terms to think about instead? Expert silo, calcified silo, critical knowledge, on-demand knowledge, expert complexity, interdependent connections, and porous connection diagrams.
Lots of words, but tons to think about.
1 The Organization of the Future 2, Hesselbein & Goldsmith, 2009