How to Effectively Break Down Silos and Why Eliminating Them Is Not The Answer

How to curtail the more harmful aspects of silos by focusing on the sharing and exchange of knowledge.

I recently ran across this quote in a Harvard Business Review blog post from Vijay Govindarajan:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success nor dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.

The quote above, as you might have inferred from the style of rhetoric, is from 1513. That’s five centuries ago, yet what Niccolo Machiavelli said still resonates today.

Machiavelli was speaking about the tendency to focus on what already works, rather than getting excited about what could happen. While the quote is focused on the idea of innovation, it correlates to a simple concept that you hear about all the time on employee surveys: eliminating silos in organizations. Specifically, eliminating silos calls for a willingness to diverge from the status quo, which can be a daunting challenge in most organizations.

Most people who have worked in an organization with more than a few people are familiar with the characteristics of silos. Essentially, marketing doesn’t talk to finance, HR doesn’t talk to IT, and so on and so forth — so when new things happen (or even when old things evolve), information is inherently incomplete. Knowledge is not transferring — which is a major hurdle for organizations and a primary focus of AnswerHub’s knowledge sharing platform.

In the Harvard Business Review article, Govindarajan talks about the two main ways to break down silos at work: “create a compelling innovation agenda” and “have a fully-aligned strategic agenda.” Both are logical ideas, though a fully-aligned strategic agenda can seem like nothing more than business fluff.

A lot of this relates back to change management. A Google search for that term yields a billion results. People always want to change a culture or a system if they think something isn’t working, and change is probably the only constant in most working environments anymore. So it all begs the question: If we’ve been dealing with issues like this in society since the 1500s, how do you break down silos in a workplace tangibly?

Where Should You Start

This post from Neil Smith at Fast Company has some good starting points to consider:

Silos occur naturally because of the way organizations are structured. Each part of a company reports up to a manager who has responsibility only for that part of the company. But none of the parts is truly independent. Each relies on others to perform its function, and the company performs well only when each of these many parts or units work closely together.

Some important takeaways:

  • Don’t actually try to eliminate silos – Ideas about the future of work are awesome, but people also need to feel comfortable and logical in the space they’re in.
  • Leaders have to lead – That’s pretty self-explanatory, but be transparent, be upfront, be timely.
  • Hire good communicators – If you’re serious about the importance of information flow, hire someone who can write well and train that person on professional nuance.
  • Define the goal – Who are your people and what are their strengths and flaws? What motivates them and what discourages them? How do they respond to email, conference calls, meetings, and agendas?

Why is AnswerHub Interested in Silos?

One of our user benefits – one that we take very seriously – is this reduction of silos by enabling information to flow easily between different groups of individuals. One of our central concepts is “ROK,” or Return on Knowledge. The idea is that your organization is stocked with great people with great ideas and strong knowledge bases, and ultimately you’re looking to maximize that, which will, in turn, affect your bottom line.

One of the most frustrating impediments to getting a return on knowledge can be the clustering of knowledge – that is, only people in one department know about a specific topic, and it’s impossible for people in a different department to get information about it. With AnswerHub, the internal knowledge is shared, and the ability to quickly connect with the expert on a topic is built in – whether he works down the hall or 5,000 miles away.

We realize we can’t end the idea of silos – they provide excellent benefits in terms of oversight and consistency – but we believe we can curtail their more harmful aspects by focusing on the sharing and exchange of knowledge.

Learn more about the benefits of knowledge management for your organization by downloading our free eBook.