Silo, Solo, So Long – Breaking Down Departmental Barriers

Jul 04, 2017
Kati Makkonen Kati Makkonen

Some years back I was in a meeting with a public-sector client, discussing how social intranet technologies could help improve collaboration between their different departments.

To put it mildly, the discussion wasn’t going well. In a nutshell, I was told that a social intranet would be a waste of money because employees in the various departments were experts in their own area.

These experts were possessive of their specialist knowledge and ideas, and wouldn’t want to share them with the rest of the organization for fear of becoming obsolete. Essentially, they were afraid that giving away tacit knowledge – breaking down their silos – would essentially render them disposable.


Share, or it’s “See you later”

Fortunately, in many modern businesses there has been a new wave of thinking in the past few years that takes a more hardline approach to this kind of attitude.

If employees are not willing to take advantage of the latest technologies available to them and share their expertise for the benefit of the wider organization, then they’re toast. This isn’t a matter of choice. Employers hold the purse strings and expect everyone to work together using the tools at their disposal to share knowhow and drive the business forward.


Tools are redundant without the will to work together

Today’s employees are seeking greater control over their working lives, and employers are increasingly recognizing that flexibility and freedom are critical to boosting employee engagement.

The possibility to work when, where, and how they like is a priority for talented professionals. Providing the necessary tools to facilitate this is all well and good, but completely redundant if you have a siloed workforce that is blind and deaf to the benefits of collaboration.

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The perils of siloed working

Departmental silos can present a wide range of problems for enterprises, including:

  • Duplication of work across disconnected teams
  • Valuable time wasted trying to solve a problem someone else could help with, or has already solved
  • Reduced likelihood of coming up with creative approaches to problems when working in isolation
  • Poor decision-making, low morale, and poor-quality customer service
  • A lack of “belonging”, where people have little or no sense of the wider organizational vision and mission

The bigger the enterprise is, the greater the challenge with silos becomes. It’s even possible that enterprises working around the globe have silos inside teams but they’re unintended and due to geographical distance rather than unwillingness to share knowledge and expertise.


Fighting the silo effect

Author and journalist Gillian Tett has written extensively about the need for a more collaborative approach in today’s economy. She argues that silos are as much about mentality as they are about organizational structure. In her book, “The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers”, she covers some steps as to how organizations can fight the silo effect: 

  1. Think about your cultural map of the world, how you organize things into different silos.
  2. Evaluate alternatives used in other organizations and sectors, and recognize that your way isn’t necessarily the right way.
  3. Keep the boundaries between departments fluid to increase the chances of people “colliding” and swapping ideas.
  4. Explore how technology and training can facilitate knowledge sharing.

Breaking down departmental barriers isn’t easy, but it can be done. In the end of the day, it all comes down to the company culture and behavior that is encouraged across company. Take a minute to think about your organization:

  • Do your employees get rewarded as part of a successful team or are they mainly rewarded from individual success?
  • How is the internal communication flowing in general; Does the communication mainly come from top management or flow both ways, top-down and also bottom-up?
  • Does your company encourage employees to start new discussions, ask for questions and share ideas?
  • Do you offer tools and technology that support open communication and collaboration across company?

It can be time consuming to break free from silos but it will reward you in the end. The first thing to do is to break free from the silo mentality.

Silo mentality is a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.
– Business Dictionary


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1. Unified vision and shared goals

If your organization doesn’t have a unified vision, this is where your work begins. This is the most important and the very first thing to do because a unified vision guides goals of each team towards the same direction. Each team have their own interests to drive them but with a shared vision the managers commit to row the boats towards the same finish line. This way every employee on every hierarchy level is responsible for reaching the company’s targets.

When managers have agreed on a unified vision it also sets a scene for an open and honest discussion. Each manager recognizes different kinds of barriers that might prevent their team from reaching their goals. When barriers are spotted and correct steps are taken there is a much better chance for a company to succeed. 

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With common goals, employees are more willing to help each other than in a situation where their objectives would be different and helping out a colleague would mean wasting time to something that wouldn’t help in reaching one’s own targets. It also becomes more evident that networking and communicating openly with different teams can help everyone towards the shared goal.

A unified vision and shared goals can also boost employee engagement because it’s easier for employees to realize that they can have an actual effect to the company success with their own actions. 


2. Enabling open and collaborative company culture

There’s a lot a company can do to teach its employees to work together, communicate better and share information. Employees absorb the way other employees work. If you want to encourage an open and more collaborative company culture, here are some actions to take: 

  1. Start organizing training session with mixed teams. This way employees get to meet colleagues from other teams and have a chance to hear what other teams are working on and what kinds of skills they have. It will become a lot easier to get help in tricky situations when one knows whom to ask help from or at least what team to ask help from.
  2. Encourage open communication across the company. For this, tools with social and collaboration features come handy. One example is a social intranet where employees can ask for more information on company wide news, participate in ongoing discussions and use collaborative workspaces to discuss and work on their projects. Open communication culture is something that can also be teached by example. If a company is not used to a social intranet kind of a communication the internal comms team can name a few social ambassadors from different teams whose job is simply to activate others and show how to act. The majority of employees are these days used to social media in their private lives so they adopt this kind of new tools quite easily.
  3. If a company is serious about building a company culture where collaboration is key, this should be also part of employee’s incentives. In large enterprises, there are often projects in which employees participate from different teams but not all of them get compensated in the end. If compensation steers a silo mentality, it will be impossible to make employees change the way they work.


3. Measure your actions

Working to break free from the silo mentality is like any other goal a company has and should be measured as such. Seeing results and being able to change course based on hard figures is the way to go. Each employee is accountable for their actions towards the common goal so measuring the individual performance is also vital.

It’s not an easy task to get rid of silos but avoiding to solve these weak spots can be very harmful for a company. If you can motivate people to stop protecting their valuable knowledge and start sharing it, it’s far easier to rally people around your common goals and get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Kati Makkonen
Kati Makkonen is the Head of Marketing and Communications at Get Universe. You can reach out to her via LinkedIn.