Silos don’t just exist on farms. You can find them in business, in government, in charities, in hospitals, everywhere where humans organize. Silos can be strategic, functional or geographic. They are characterized by their isolation within the larger organization, acting as self-contained units with very little interaction occurring outside their walls.

What is Silo Thinking?

The expressions "silo thinking," "silo vision" and the "silo effect" describe departments, teams and groups that function well on their own but are dysfunctional as contributors to overall performance within an organization. Silos are focused on their own issues, their specialties. The members of silos view the opinions of those outside the silo as being of no value. This behavioral rigidity can have serious negative consequences. Just ask Helen Lampert, Partner at WISDOM Practice, a Toronto, Canada, based consulting firm that specializes in strengthening organizational performance.

"We see silo thinking a lot," states Lampert. "Teams, as small as five members, are just as likely to operate in silos as global organizations with headquarters around the world. The consequence is that the whole is less than the parts, best practices are never shared, and opportunities to leverage existing investments and intellectual capital are wasted."

Lampert along with her partner Lisa Brisebois have been providing companies with training and coaching on improving team effectiveness. Lampert comments, "In our experience, smashing silos is an imperative for success. Sadly, once the silo effect becomes a cultural norm, it takes extraordinary determination and support to break through and change behavior."

The Consequences of Silo Thinking

There are far too many examples of silo thinking contributing to detrimental outcomes. Here are just a few from recent world headlines.

Just think of the senior flight safety decision-making processes at NASA that led to the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster. Those outside of the inner circle raised alarms about a potential danger from falling foam debris but the inner circle in its silo ignored the concerns. In the report that followed this disaster the conclusions referenced the silo thinking at NASA as contributing to the death of 8 astronauts and the loss of the spacecraft.

What about the lack of a tsunami early warning system when coastal areas around the Indian Ocean were inundated in December 2004? Countries on the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire had an early warning system in place. Why did countries surrounding the Indian Ocean not overcome their own silo thinking to recognize the importance of implementing a similar system? Over 226,000 people died. Many could have been saved.

Can the failure of the levies around New Orleans be attributed to the silo effect? The Army Corps of Engineers, climatologists, federal and state government bodies, all failed to act in concert to prevent the post-Katrina disaster. Each knew that the levies could not withstand a significant storm surge resulting from a hurricane. The result -- the flooding of 80% of the city and the death of over 1,800 people.

Learning Opportunities

Is the current massive recall of Toyota motor vehicles another example of the consequences of silo thinking? Despite customer field complaints about quality and safety issues, those in the upper tier at Toyota appeared to ignore the problem. The current count has reached over 9 million vehicles recalled.

In all these cases multi-disciplinary and cross-departmental knowledge sharing could have played a mitigating part leading to different outcomes.

[Editor's Note: See related article Social Networking in the Enterprise: What’s the ROI?]

What Role Can Enterprise Social Networks Play?

Enterprise social networks are primarily platforms for omni-directional communication. If you were create a diagram of an enterprise social network it isn't hierarchical. It's more like a circle. When David Tebbutt, an analyst with Freeform Dynamics, presented at the CMA Annual Conference in London, England, in February 2009, his topic was "The Business Value of Social Networking." Tebbutt outlines what social software means to the corporate world: "Hierarchies get flattened. Silos get breached. Intermediaries get sidelined. Openness increases. Transparency increases." Let's look at each item from Tebbutt's quote.

  1. Hierarchies get flattened
    Enterprise social networks are primarily platforms for omni-directional communication. If you were create a diagram of an enterprise social network it isn't hierarchical. It's more like a circle with lines of communication crossing in every direction. Information flows up and throughout the organization. The social profile of a person at the top of the organization chart in a social network appears no differently from the employee who is on the production line. The entire dynamic of a business can be altered particularly around problem solving and collective causes.
  2. Silos get breached
    Lampert states, "To break through silos we begin by demonstrating they exist." Most companies do not freely admit they foster a silo culture. When social networks are implemented new roles and structures emerge in the virtual space breaking down the silo walls. Lampert observes, "once individuals connect on a more personal level you can institute new role structures, identify cross-functional opportunities where previous silo thinkers can come together and share."
  3. Intermediaries get sidelined
    With blogs, wikis, walls, chat, multimedia support, document sharing, virtual community spaces, tagging, powerful search and other functionality, an enterprise loses its internal gatekeepers. Blockers melt away and sharing becomes part of the corporate ethos.
  4. Openness increases
    Social networking is all about communication, about a continuous conversation, unfiltered, direct, without mediation. This conversation can be between people in the same department, in different departments, between employees and customers, between employees and prospects, between customers and prospects, and with suppliers.
  5. Transparency increases
    An enterprise social network can encompass not only the corporate team but also suppliers, customers and prospects. Through transparency the business can enhance its reputation as being responsive and responsible. Transparency makes the company more agile. It can bring expertise to bear quickly because the shared expertise is available community wide within the social network. Knowledge flows. New hires become more effective, more quickly.

In our case examples of silo thinking it doesn't take much convincing to see the merits and value of implementing tools that breach silo walls. Social networking can play such a key role in helping companies to be their best by harvesting the collective wisdom in which they have invested. Lampert believes that social networks can play a huge role in organizations. She states, "today our clients at Wisdom Practice are able to come together in so many ways thanks to new technologies like social networking. We're seeing a huge uptake of these types of business tools. It just makes sense -- easier, faster and unlimited collaboration at your fingertips and no silo walls to get in the way."