For many years the mantra in knowledge management, and more recently in collaboration circles, has been:
“We need to break down silos”
Yet silos are so common that I’ve been wondering if they have a role to play, or if they’re an unfortunate side-effect of something else? Here, then, is my list of 5 great things about silos:
1. They can foster collaboration
When you need a group of people to work together effectively, they need a common world view. Even better if they have shared values, terminology (read: jargon) and approaches. A tightly-knit department will have all of these characteristics. The very unity of their thinking is what makes them more silo-like. If it’s a hospital team doing an operation or a sales team completing a bid, work goes more smoothly with these things in place. When people say silos are a barrier to collaboration, what they mean is specifically cross-silo collaboration and quite often really what they mean is innovation. In that context, then yes, silos are an issue for efficient working, but the bringing together of different world views is very good for innovation…eventually.
We naturally like to identify with a ‘tribe’. Often this is defined by context. Abroad I might bond with anyone British, in Britain I might identify with a fellow Yorkshireman, but take us both to Yorkshire and we might find we’re from ‘rival’ towns. Within organisations, silos reflect a tribe that is an important part of belonging. In corporate speak we’d celebrate thsi as “employee engagement”. Dunbar’s number implies that tribes have natural limits, so if it gets too big we end up splitting it – making a new silo.
As Clay Shirky pointed out, often the issue isn’t information overload but a failure of filtering. By working within a silo, we are using the people around us to help filter out irrelevant information and highlight what’s important. This works well 90% of the time. The issue is that when something important comes along that doesn’t register with the common world view of the silo so it gets filtered prematurely (as was the case with Frank Whittle’s jet engine when first presented to a disinterested RAF in 1937).
Related to #1. One of the reasons experts don’t like to share is that they fear their knowledge will be mis-used by people not equipped to apply it. Electricians may know short cuts that are safe “if you know what you’re doing” but which they’d never advise a member of the public to do. Having a silo creates a trusted environment where such knowledge can be shared because you can assume competence.
When a silo has a cohesive sense of purpose then it reduces the inertia to action. In effect clear boundaries mark the edge of where a group can act without further consultation. It is very hard to grow or manage a group above a certain size, which is why federated / franchise / hub-and-spoke models are so common. Without silos we’d grind to a halt in endless consultation with people who are not sure if they’re in or out.
Postscript: I just read useful distinction between collaboration and teamwork by Andrew Campbell. Although I dont’ agree with how narrowly the author defines collaboration, it helps clarify my first point – silo’s are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration as Andrew defines it.
About the author
Sam Marshall runs ClearBox, a UK-based consultancy that’s passionate about making the workplace a better experience, helping companies better connect, communicate and collaborate.