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Breaking Down Silos

March 29, 2010


The deleterious effects of organizational silos have received a lot of press recently. Med Yones, an international expert specializing in global strategy, organization development, and innovation management, has remarked: “The larger the organization, the more susceptible it is to the breakdown of communication, the emergence of management silos and misalignment.” My most recent post on the subject of organizational silos was entitled The Curse of Silo Thinking. Despite the fact that most business leaders understand the challenges created by organizational silos, breaking down those silos continues to be a challenge. Saul Kaplan, founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory, believes that persistence of silos in organizations (both commercial and government) will continue to attract the attention of innovators [“Innovators, Break Down Those Silos,” BusinessWeek, 8 February 2010]. Kaplan writes:

“How many capabilities are locked away, underleveraged in organizational or industry silos? Who hasn’t suffered a severe case of innovator’s envy, coveting access to information and capabilities that seem so tantalizingly close? Most innovation doesn’t require inventing anything new. It is often just a matter of combining and recombining capabilities across disciplines, organizations, and sectors. The problem is that those capabilities are often impossible to access. The biggest opportunities in health care, education, security, and energy lie in the gray areas between silos. We need to think and act more horizontally. In doing so, we’ll connect unusual suspects in purposeful ways.”

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have repeatedly asserted that the most fertile ground for innovative thinking lies at the borders between sectors and involves the kind of horizontal thinking touted by Kaplan. Those borders only become fertile, however, if they are permeable rather than impenetrable. Where borders become walls, silos can be found on both sides of the wall. To make his point, Kaplan writes about how the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was able to promote research by breaking down walls rather than erecting them. He was surprised when the CIA’s laudable effort received criticism. He writes:

“Take spies and environmentalists. Recent news of the CIA reviving its MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis) program and providing access to data from national intelligence assets for environmental research really got my attention. What a great example of the power and politics of collaborative innovation. With no security risk, disruption of agency activities, or incremental cost, the CIA has opened up a treasure trove of valuable data to scientists from academia, government, and industry for environmental research. To replicate the capture of this information would be silly and cost-prohibitive, and I was encouraged that the data were being shared to make progress on an important social issue. But then naysayers and politics entered the conversation. Instead of garnering praise for the program, as I would have expected, the CIA was criticized for mission creep. … Talking heads across cable news accused the CIA of negligence, arguing that sharing data with environmental scientists was a distraction from its core mission of minding the American public. But the pundits have it wrong. The CIA and all Homeland Security organizations should be doing more, not less, cross-agency collaboration and data sharing. The protection of data, capabilities, and turf has gotten us into the current mess. Perhaps if the focus had been on networking capabilities and sharing data across silos, America would be a safer country today.”

Kaplan laments the fact that a huge amount of important data, paid for by taxpayers, is locked away behind silos, even though procedures exist for making that data available. He continues:

“In 1986, the Federal Technology Transfer Act created the CRADA (Cooperative Research & Development Agreement) process to enable public-private partnerships around promising government technologies. CRADA may just as well stand for ‘Can’t Really Access Developed Assets.’ Government rhetoric claims to support technology transfer, but the painful bureaucratic process in place makes it nearly impossible to leverage existing government capabilities. I get a headache just thinking about how hard it is to access all the valuable information and data that have been created by government agencies and paid for by taxpayer dollars. Many of these assets could be leveraged to unleash new value and to help make progress on our big social challenges.”

To be fair, Kaplan notes that government bureaucracies are not the only organizations guilty of erecting information silos. He continues:

“Private-sector organizations are similar. We are so busy pedaling the bicycle of today’s business models that there is no capacity to explore new ones. The secret sauce of business model innovation is the ability to explore new ways to deliver customer value by combining and recombining capabilities, in and out of the organization, across silos.”

I couldn’t agree more. Organizations need to create conditions where such collaboration can take place. When creative people from different disciplines get together to discuss challenges, something that Frans Johansson calls the Medici Effect takes place. By bringing a number of different perspectives to bear on a challenge, innovative ideas generally emerge. Kaplan asserts, however, that too often people can’t see the potential benefits of collaboration and hunker down in their silos. He concludes:

“This pattern repeats itself over and over. It is not the technology that gets in the way of innovation. It is humans and the organizations we live in that are both stubbornly resistant to experimentation and change. If we want to make progress on the big issues of our time, we have to look up from our silos and become more comfortable recombining capabilities in new ways in order to connect with the unusual suspects.”

Evan Rosen, executive director of The Culture of Collaboration® Institute, agrees that silos are bad and collaboration is good; and he provides a number of ways to help break down those silos [“Smashing Silos,” BusinessWeek, 5 February 2010]. He writes:

“No business, institution, or government agency is immune from silo syndrome in which barriers develop among the organization’s many parts. But adopting collaborative culture, processes, and tools can keep silo syndrome in check and create greater value. The term ‘silo’ is a metaphor suggesting a similarity between grain silos that segregate one type of grain from another and the segregated parts of an organization. In an organization suffering from silo syndrome, each department or function interacts primarily within that ‘silo’ rather than with other groups across the organization. Marketing may develop its own culture and have difficulty interacting with other functions such as sales or engineering. This manifestation of silo syndrome breeds insular thinking, redundancy, and suboptimal decision-making. … Silos also commonly extend to systems and data. As systems fail to interact and data becomes trapped and unavailable to decision-makers outside the silo, people are less likely to interact. When people are culturally inhibited from interacting across departments and functions, they avoid sharing data and information outside of their silos. It’s a vicious cycle, one that can cost an organization in agility, productivity, and responsiveness.”

Unless an organization does something to break down silos, the challenge will only get worse as the amount of information trapped in silos grows. Before providing his recommendations about how to break down silos, Rosen discusses under what conditions silos can emerge.

“Command-and-control-oriented cultures breed silos. In such cultures, fear prevails. Managers focus on guarding turf rather than on engaging colleagues outside their group. Instead of reaching across the organization, people in command-and-control cultures primarily move information and decisions vertically. If it seems necessary to involve another department or function, a team member runs the idea up the flagpole within his or her silo. Then it’s up to a more senior manager whether to engage another department, function, or business unit. Talk about collaboration roadblocks. Senior leaders are by no means immune to silo syndrome. In some organizations, leaders of business units and functions focus more on managing their teams and their relationships with the CEO than on collaborating across the organization. Silos can also occur among organizational levels when team members are either inhibited or discouraged from engaging senior leaders without going through channels. Also, senior leaders may feel inhibited from engaging front-line workers.”

Rosen explains that “in collaborative organizations, people interact spontaneously regardless of level, role, or region. This encourages broad input into product and service development, process improvements, and marketing campaigns. … Collaborative organizations engage factory workers in the design of the products and the manufacturing processes. This breaks down the barriers between product development and manufacturing and reduces the impact of silos. The collaborative approach also reduces product development time and ultimately produces a better result.” I agree with Rosen. In a post entitled Becoming or Supporting an Entrepreneur: Your Choice, I wrote: “Whether you are entrepreneur that starts a business from scratch or one that builds on an established idea of someone else, you can make your business better by remaining curious and having an open mind to the ideas of others.” Rosen then provides “five steps to smashing silos”:

• Eliminate Needless Formality and Hierarchy

Formality fuels silos and poisons collaboration, because people become overly concerned with protocol and politics. When formality is unchecked, team members feel it’s better to play it safe than to risk gaining unwanted attention. The organization becomes distracted and people are less likely to reach across silos to innovate, develop new markets, and make better decisions. Eliminate the need to “go through channels” and minimize cultural requirements of going through assistants, administrators, and handlers before engaging leaders.

• Provide One-Click Access to Entire Organization

Finding and connecting with experts and colleagues spontaneously is key to curing silo syndrome. We should be able to view the availability or ‘presence status’ of everybody in the organization and connect with them immediately through instant messaging, voice, or real-time video. Regardless of level, role, or region, everybody is potentially available to everybody else. Unified communications and collaboration systems provide this capability.

• Design Dedicated Physical Spaces for Collaboration

With the proliferation of collaborative tools and the focus on collaborating at a distance, it’s easy to forget the value of same-room collaboration. Design collaborative physical spaces where team members can come together in a relaxed setting to brainstorm new products and services, innovate processes, and work cross-functionally to create solutions. Make the spaces configurable on the fly so that users can design their environments as needed.

• Adopt Common Systems and Processes

When systems interact, people are more likely to interact. Establish common platforms and systems across the organization and give people access to the same data and information. This also discourages information hoarding, which can compromise collaboration.

• Establish Cross-Functional Mentoring

Encourage team members to find mentors in other functions, business units, and regions. This develops the workforce by exposing people to areas outside their expertise. In time, they will cross-pollinate by seeking and accepting assignments across the organization. This reduces the impact of silos by enhancing cross-functional interaction while giving team members greater exposure in multiple areas.

The larger an organization becomes the more important these recommendations are. When everybody in a company knows everybody else, informal relationships naturally develop and stepping across the lines drawn on an organizational chart is easy. A company doesn’t have to get very big, however, for silos to develop. The reason is very understandable. Corporate silos emerge because leaders require specialized knowledge and need to know who is accountable for different aspects of an organization. Those in charge of specialized knowledge often embrace the adage “knowledge is power” and deliberately erect silos to protect their turf. A good leader will be on constant lookout for silos and move quickly to break them down.

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