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Organizational Silos: A Detriment to Collaboration and How to Eradicate Them

Updated on January 22, 2014

What are organizational silos?

Foster (2010) states that “a ‘silo’ is a rigid vertical structure that shields its contents from all contact with other silos” (para. 5). This definition gives a visual representation of a silo and helps us understand the basis of applying it to an organization. Shein (2011) defines organizational silos as “barriers that develop among the organization’s many parts or territories” (para. 3). According to Moussa (as cited in Fox, 2010) silos are “psychological and physical barriers that separate people, business units or locations and prevent people from collaborating with one another” (p. 50). To further define silos, they are “departments within organizations [that] are isolated from each other and have few means of communicating” (Cromity & de Stricker, 2011, p. 172). The reoccurring themes of each silo definition are isolation and separation. Inevitably, this isolation makes it difficult for people to collaboration.

Silos in Your Organization

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How are silos formed?

Fox (2010) states that silos are created by geographical design (separate buildings, offices in another country, office doors) or organizational design. Organizational design of silos occurs when managers put their group’s goals and needs ahead of the organization’s objectives (Rieger, 2011). According to Rieger (2011) and Shein (2011), they do this because of fear; fear of their job and not being able to meet their department’s goals.

Rieger (2011) states that as organizations grow, they become more complex. The author explains that to handle this complexity, managers create more specialized roles and divisions, such as marketing groups, sales, human resources, recruiting departments, etc. Each department has a manager, and the manager is responsible for ensuring the goals of the department are achieved (Rieger, 2011). This means departments look within themselves and not among each other (Shein, 2011). Rieger explains that as the company evolves and grows, departments start competing for resources to help them meet their goal and the company objective becomes a distant goal (2011).

As situations arise where there are no policies, each department creates a policy that protects them, but the policies do not necessarily keep sight of the overall objective of the company (Rieger, 2011). Rieger states that this creates parochialism, which is the base of bureaucracy. With each level of bureaucracy that is built on the base, more and more barriers are created (Rieger, 2011).

Morse (2007) states silos are formed not just among departments, but also among personnel as employees prefer to be the “go-to” person for information and will not be communicative or transparent in their processes. Though the author was referring to designing and sharing customized spreadsheets, this mentality can be applied to other areas and processes of businesses.

Cufaude (2009) states that silos are created by mindset, culture, and processes. “The culture of the organization and the level of distrust among employees can be key factors in determining whether employees will share knowledge effectively” (Cromity & de Stricker, 2011, p. 176). When there is no trust in the corporate system, that is when personnel start keeping information to themselves (Cromity & de Stricker, 2011). This means that not all of the information is available to all employees.

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SharePoint is “a content management tool developed specifically for professional
collaboration providing Web 2.0 features such as blogs, wikis, task management,
and so forth, for enterprise content”(stated by Cromity, as cited in Cromity
& de Stricker, 2011, p. 169).

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint/

Effects of organizational silos

Silos keep groups segregated (Shein, 2011), which result in redundancy in functions and difficulty contacting appropriate personnel with relevant knowledge (Fox, 2010). This means information is not being shared (Fox, 2010) (i.e., no collaboration). According to Wilson (as cited in Cromity & de Stricker, 2011), silos create barriers and limit collaboration among departments.

According to Cromity and de Stricker (2011), communication is “sharing knowledge or disseminating of information and collaborating with others” (p.170). An article in PR News (PR News, 2000) states that “the silo mentality represents a serious barrier to effective corporate communication” (para. 1). The article also states that silos create confusion and conflict among employees. However, collaboration is important and sought after in many organizations, as evident in Microsoft’s sale of its SharePoint platform, which reached 100 million users with US $1 billion in sales in 18 months, according to Chennault & Strain (as cited in Cromity & de Stricker, 2011).

In the end, silos inhibit efficiency, innovation, and workflow processes (Cromity & de Stricker, 2011).

Avoiding silo behavior

Cromity and de Stricker (2011) suggest the following strategies to avoid silo behavior:

  • Promote “good information practices” (p. 180). Implement a policy that information gets shared with people who need it and acknowledge workers and managers who support that policy.
  • Create an information center to manage the organization’s intellectual information in collaboration with the IT department.
  • Allow for time for workers to follow this information sharing policy by building it into project plans and schedules. At the start of a project, perform an information assessment to ensure appropriate information is available to internal and external personnel.
  • Provide the right tools to store, protect, and distribute the information and ensure workers know how to use the tools.
  • Perform information audits (“who is doing what with information, using what tools, with what results or risks” [p. 182]).
  • Create a process for new hires to gain the skills and understand the desired behavior for information sharing.

Breaking down the silos

If organizations discover that there are silos in place that inhibit collaboration there are many suggested ways to breakdown these silos.

Fox (2010) says that organizations can breakdown silos through job rotation, cross-training, informal networking opportunities, and open-space architecture. Job rotation and cross-training may not always be feasible when employees perform specialized jobs, such as engineers, scientists, or doctors. Moussa (as cited in Fox, 2010) also suggests giving employees laptops and supplying wireless networking so people can leave their cubicles. Taking these steps will reduce the likelihood of personnel staying isolated from other employees in their offices and cubicles and foster collaboration.

One way Shein (2011) suggests is to engage workers in the entire project process instead of giving them information only on a need-to-know basis. Giving employees access to information can be provided through enterprise solutions, such as Microsoft’s SharePoint platform. This type of solution has increased collaboration among people in teams and across departments and, as a result, eliminated some silos (Cromity & de Stricker, 2011).

Murphy (as cited in Cromity & de Stricker, 2011) identified six steps organizations should follow when implementing collaboration technologies:

1. Clearly articulate your intent in the adoption of technologies.

2. Review and identify potential applications compatible with the desired intent.

3. Review existing organizational practice to identify potential barriers, revise policy to suit.

4. Develop the application with the users firmly in mind, clearly highlighting what is in it for them and the value of their involvement.

5. Pilot the use of the application within a single group without mandating how or why it should be used.

6. Adopt a viral diffusion model to build user base dictated by interest and desire to be involved. (p. 174)

Fox (2010) states that incentives do not encourage people to work together and share information. Moussa (as cited in Fox, 2010) states that we need to “use leadership, persuasion and recognition of behavior to encourage silo busting, and you have to promote people who collaborate well” (p. 51). According to Cufaude (2009), “Long-term change only occurs when we address the mental models and belief systems that get in the way of desired results” (sidebar). Additionally, organizational culture needs to promote knowledge sharing (Cromity & de Stricker, 2011).

In the article from PR News (2000), the author states that leaders should convince silo supporters to understand how the company would benefit without silos and acting unified. Cromity and de Stricker (2011) say this can be done by making the “quality, consistency, and frequency” (p. 179) of sharing information part of performance evaluations. However, the authors state this is difficult to monitor (2011).

Lunn (1997) says the best way to breakdown silos is through:

  • Teamwork with a common goal identified, such as when a football team plays a game to win or an orchestra performs at a concert. Business teams also need a common goal to work toward.
  • Expand knowledge and be willing to change in areas of quality, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Connect to customers by understanding how each person contributes to what the customer wants or needs.

Implementation of breaking down silos

Accountable care organization. Fitzgerald (2013) states that healthcare organizations are beginning to use accountable care organization (ACO) methods to enhance collaboration. The goal of ACO is to eliminate silos in healthcare so doctors can deliver optimum health to their patients (Fitzgerald, 2013). Fitzgerald (2013) explains that this centralized system compiles patient’s information so doctors have all the data on claims for their patients. This helps eliminate errors in patient care, such as receiving double the medication a patient should receive, and reduce care costs (Fitzgerald, 2013).

Clinical nurse leader. To help eliminate the silos and reduce medical errors, the healthcare industry created centralized communication responsibilities (PR News, 2000) by creating the clinical nurse leader (CNL) role (Begun, Tornabeni, & White, 2006). The authors explain that this role is responsible for communicating and collaborating among interdisciplinary healthcare teams and members (2006). Begun, Tornabeni, and White describe this as lateral care (2006).

Appropriate solution

There is no one best way to eliminate silos and foster collaboration as the solution depends on how the silos were formed.

If silos were formed because of structural design, then silos can be busted by opening up floor plans, providing employees with laptops, and installing wireless connections in the office.

However, silos that were formed because of organizational design are more difficult to overcome. These silos were created because of culture, fear, and separate departments. In this author’s experience, some of the most logical ways to eliminate silos include:

  • Ensuring all team members are given full access to project information, not just information that leaders feel team members need to know.
  • Provide information in a centralized system that is easily accessible to employees.
  • Train the employees on how to use the centralized system and help them understand its benefits.
  • Eliminate separate cost centers to remove the mentality of looking out for their department and hoarding resources.
  • Include information sharing and collaboration efforts as part of employee reviews.

Using these techniques may eventually evolve the organizational culture and reduce or even eliminate silos and improve collaboration.

Time and cost analysis of implementing appropriate solutions

Unfortunately, there is a lack of study on the time and cost to implement silo busting activities. However, Moussa (as cited in Fox, 2010) states that the cost of promoting collaboration can be high. “You have to learn another language, you have to appreciate others' values systems, you have to negotiate terms, and you have to invest in time-consuming meetings” (Fox, 2010, p. 51). The time to implement solutions could be measured in months or years (Chumakova, 2013).

Moussa (as cited in Fox, 2010) states it is the Human Resources professional responsibility to determine whether or not it is effective to have silos or the cost to remove them sufficiently outweighs their detriment to the organization.

Summary

Silos are all around us in the professional world. They are much like cliques and difficult to eliminate. However, the costs silos have to organizational collaboration are high including decreased efficiency and increased mistrust among different departments.

If organizations can start changing their culture and promote collaboration by providing centralized systems and policies, then maybe silos will slowly start to topple. In the end, maybe organizations should adopt the motto of the infamous Three Musketeers, “All for one and one for all” (Dumas, 2011).

References

Begun, J. W., Tornabeni, J., & White, K. R. (2006). Opportunities for improving patient care through lateral integration: The clinical nurse leader. Journal of Healthcare Management, 51(1), 19-25.

Chumakova, A. (2013). Cross-departmental BPM solution vs. organizational silos. Retrieved from http://blog.comindware.com/solutions/cross-departmental-bpm-solution-vs-organizational-silos/

Cromity, J., & de Stricker, U. (2011). Silo persistence: It's not the technology, it's the culture! New Review of Information Networking, 16(2), 167-184. doi:10.1080/13614576.2011.619924

Cufaude, J. (2009, December). Break out of the silo mentality. Associations Now Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/ANowDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=46320

Dumas, A. (2011). The three musketeers. Fairford, Glos: Echo Library.

Fitzgerald, B. (2013). In Morristown, changing the industry's silo mentality. Njbiz, 14.

Foster, R. W. (2010). Breaking down the silos. Point of Beginning, 35(11), 40-41.

Fox, A. (2010). Don't let silos stand in the way. HR Magazine, 55(5), 50-51.

Lunn, T. (1997). Breaking down silos and building teamwork. Hospital Materiel Management Quarterly, 19(2), 9-15. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/234418286?accountid=38569

Rieger, T. (2011). Beware of parochial managers. Gallup Management Journal Online, 1.

Shein, M. (2011, July). Beware! Don't design this appliance. Appliance Design. 4.

PR News. (2000). Tearing down silos to build a corporate-wide communication plan. PR News, 55(28), 1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/204211989?accountid=38569

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