Review of DON’T LET SILOS STAND IN THE WAY. Mario Moussa interviewed by Adrienne Fox for HR Magazine

SILO THINKING
Adrienne Fox asked Mario Moussa how you would define a silo in an organization. Mario thinks silos could be psychological as well as physical barriers. Silos could separate people, business units, or location and prevent people from collaborating with one another. Silos exist within our workspaces and us. It’s natural as humans to realize we don’t concern ourselves with our colleagues in other physical locations or doing other work. It’s not done intentionally or with any malice, we just naturally focus on our work and what needs to be done from our perspective.
Marios was also asked what aspect of the company’s organization contributes to silos? He feels the geography between units or departments and organizational design can create physical silos that impede the flow of information. It is hard to learn from someone if they work in another building or another country or speak another language of business. He makes an important point that it doesn’t just affect large companies. Even with small companies, office doors has the potential to create silos. If I don’t talk with you or see you, I may not think of you or it may be harder to relate to you.

My Comments:

I once worked for a large company, which some employees admitted, was heavily siloed. For many years, management would never publically admitted their organization was heavily siloed. Before you can improve communication and collaboration within an organization, you have to admit there’s a problem. Some were unaware of how siloed the organization was or they felt it was not a significant threat to the company. I imagine many executives may have been fearful of taking on such a monumental task – if you’ve been siloed for some time, it could be very challenging to change company behavior. What tangible proof would senior executives have to show employees that cooperation and collaboration is the path to take?

It can be argued that companies miss opportunities and solutions if they are siloed. Work may be done more slowly with less collaboration and less creativity. With a siloed organization, the tendency is to be around like minded people – so there may be fewer ideas and creativity as many of those people think the same way.

EXAMPLES OF HEAVILY SILOED ORGANIZATIONS

1. One sign is redundancy. If other departments have a dedicated sales group very similar to yours. On the other hand, if many departments have similar training or documentation structure. This redundancy is wasteful and doesn’t contribute to cross-functional idea sharing.
2. If you have a hard time reaching people in other parts of the company who have knowledge you need regardless of the location. Someone has the knowledge but you don’t know who it is. This indicates that for whatever reason, people are not sharing the information or information sharing is not taking place.
My Comments:
When I worked for a large company, I sometimes mentioned my frustration to my co-worker of 25 years how siloed we were as an organization. Instead of providing me with empathy or understanding on the challenges I faced, she went to her company rolodex. She made a few calls to get the information she needed. That’s fine for someone who’s senior enough to know people in most departments but how many employees have been employed there for 5 years where they have a solid network. In addition, with employees spending less and less time at an organization, fewer employees at this company will have the experience to tap into their network when they have collaboration issues.

I thought it was telling this company veteran quickly went to her company rolodex to get the information she needed. She didn’t concern herself with the source of the problem; her main concern was her immediate problem. There were other seasoned employees who employed the same approach. With so many employees just worried about their task and ignoring the larger issue, over the years, very little positive change will occur, especially at the grass roots level.

The article goes on to say that silos are not destructive designs created by evil people. Of course, most large organizations may have some back stabbers and empire builders but systemic, organization wide silos are a result of systems. Company silos may or may not be recognized by senior management – if senior management are concerned with silos, what steps are taken to address an organization? Would the steps taken to address depend on the severity of the siloed organization?

WHAT COULD ENCOURAGE COLLABORATION?
Mario Moussa is asked if there are any HR policies that could encourage more data sharing and collaboration. He’s not sure if there’s more collaboration in place, if HR would be able to reward cross-functional behavior as it’s hard to trace collaborative work to the bottom line.

Mario feels incentive driven behavior by HR will not exclusively change behavior. The tone has to be set by leadership – show the entire organization how committed they are to this type of initiative. One other thing Mario mentioned about improving cross-functional behavior is setting a positive tone is to promote people who collaborate well to help break up silos.

My Comments:
A sweeping generalization may be that the older the organization, the more it’s siloed. That may not always be true but it’s been my business experience with a handful of companies in which I’m familiar.

Regardless, leadership has to be very committed to this initiative and not just through lip service. Especially if this is another corporate vision or initiative that may lose steam after a year or two as other priorities take over. It may take larger or older companies more time to break down these silos so the commitment has to be genuine and long-term.

Job rotation and cross-training are ways some companies have dismantled silos. Information networking opportunities helps build strong relationships. Relationship building at an organization can build strong relationships which heavily affects productivity and creativity.

The article does mention physical architecture can improve collaboration; open spaces may help break down silos. Including common workplaces, sofas, soft lighting, and cappuccino machines encouraged people to talk, share ideas and build relationships.

CAN COLLABORATION EVER BE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE?
According to Mario, some sales teams do worse when outsides offer to help. A lot of time may be involved. Appreciate other people’s values, learn another language, it’s very time consuming. Sometimes it’s energizing and rewarding and sometimes not.

The cost of cross-unit collaboration is 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. Sometimes it’s energizing, and sometimes it’s not. HR professionals should assess whether the effort is worth the payoff. If it’s not, people should be left alone to work in their silos.

My Comments:
It’s critically important to know that collaboration, improved communication or information sharing appears to improve the company’s bottom line. It sounds plausible but it’s not always the case. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis as part of your planning process to determine what you’ll gain and what will it cost you. It may be energizing to employees or departments but is it worth the payoff?
The article concludes that HR professionals should be able to assess whether the effort is worth the payoff. Is that correct? Do they have that authority and expertise to make that determination?
I don’t know if you can always eliminate all company silos even if HR determines it’s the right course of action to take. Regardless, putting some information and collaboration sharing models in place may be a step in the right direction.

Another short-term approach to improve large company communication would be to have a panel or group of people whom employees could contact with information sharing or communication issues. A panel of employees who are very knowledge about the company and using understanding and empathy to help those who have questions about contacts or obtaining information. That new model would not necessarily directly address the source of the issue but would set a positive tone that the company is interested in improving their communication and collaboration between departments, business units, buildings or locations.

Kevin Schwarm

I have over 25 years of professional experience in business, information technology (IT), and customer service. Industry experience in retail, medical insurance, higher education, non-profit, financial services, and property and casualty insurance. Customer focused professional interested in providing value (save time, money and aggravation) by evaluating and analyzing information, services and products with a unique perspective.

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