Smashing Silos

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.

Silo syndrome can also impact business units, wreaking havoc with customers. In a typical scenario, separate sales organizations for each business unit fail to coordinate. When sales representatives from different silos call on the same people, customers may conclude that the vendor either has no regard for his or her time or that the salespeople and the company they represent are disorganized. Unless the vendor is the only game in town, the customer may look elsewhere.

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.

Collaboration Roadblocks

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.

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. Rather than present a marketing plan or campaign after it's already developed, why not get sales, finance, and corporate communications involved early? Then the plan has cross-functional buy-in baked right in. And it's likely a stronger plan, because it reflects less-insular input.

In the product design arena, command-and-control organizations inform factory workers what they'll be building and how. These workers are on a need-to-know basis. 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. Toyota expects team members at every level of the organization to participate in process improvements and decisions. The Mayo Clinic innovates patient services by bringing facilities people, doctors, nurses, electricians, and marketers together to develop prototypes.

Here are 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.

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