a bridge leading to a castle
Dismantling silos sounds great in theory. But after years of unsuccessful attempts, we've turned to another way: building bridges PHOTO: Marc Zimmer

I used to be a strident proponent of breaking down system silos. I took the stage at several conferences over the years to preach how tearing down walls between various pieces of technology across the organization helps deliver better customer experiences. But not any longer. I’ve come to realize that it was an impossible dream.

Let’s face it: no one is going to throw out their incumbent systems just because we say they should. Especially not if those systems are still doing the job they were purchased to do. We have all worked with systems that are "good enough" to fulfill a specific set of tasks.

Removing and replacing existing systems isn’t quick or cheap, but the biggest hurdle isn’t budget, or technology (although that’s what’s often cited) — it’s human.

Navigating the Shifting Customer Experience Waters

People often build their careers around particular systems. They develop specific areas of knowledge related to "their" system and "their data." The idea of letting others into their area of expertise can be seen as threatening. It’s a world of “what ifs” — What if they (the other departments) mess up my data? What if their findings contradict my own?

Then there’s the cultural aspect too. Systems become ingrained to the point that policies and procedures develop around them and they become an essential part of the way the company operates. It may not be the best way, and often it isn’t, but it works so why change it?

Change is hard, and dramatic change is the hardest of all. But change is inevitable.

The way customers interact with companies is evolving, and so are their expectations. It's always taken a collection of divisions and departments to deliver goods, services and the desired brand experience to customers. Similarly, customers interacted with organizations via multiple touchpoints spread across multiple departments. The fact that each of those experiences was different was an accepted part of doing business. But no longer.

Today’s customers demand a seamless, consistent experience at every touchpoint and interaction with the company both before and after purchase. Delivering a series of disparate transactions will no longer cut it, organizations must develop ongoing relationships, and to do that, they need to take a holistic view of the customer's data. Data that resides in those siloed systems.

Build Bridges Between Systems of Record

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post inspired by watching two characters from Game of Thrones negotiate across a castle drawbridge. It got me thinking about information flow. That metaphor holds true when it comes to using data to deliver improved customer experiences.

Instead of tearing down the castle (or system) walls, we should be looking at how we can build bridges between them. That way those who have built their expertise can share it while still having authority over their own keep (data set). Bridges allow the required data to be collected once and then flow freely between systems where the individual system owners can use it in the way that best suits their need.

Each customer interfacing system can still stand alone and address the needs of a particular line of business, or be an enterprise single source of truth. Yet by passing data between them, or existing enterprise business systems, they can be the foundation of a fully connected continuous customer experience.

Over a period of time we will find out which systems are really needed and which data is central to delivering the customer experience. Some of those silos will gradually fall into disuse and fade away to be replaced by true systems of record. This was bought home to me recently when a VP at a large company told the story of their digital transformation project. Midway through the project, they realized that of the 30-plus systems they had in use, only nine were vital to the process of delivering customer service. Taking a customer-centric view of their data and the way it flowed around the organization helped them understand which were the real systems of value.

Building bridges between systems will allow us to develop data journeys that reflect our customers’ journeys.