close up of rooster's eye
Oftentimes attempts to solve the internal silo problem results in treating the symptoms, not the cause. PHOTO: Jairo Alzate

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “break down silos to create a better customer experience.” This mandate is equal parts grand vision, strategic goal, and, if history has anything to say about it, frustrating pipe dream. 

It’s been more than a decade (2004) since Gartner introduced the idea of the single view of the customer and all the apparent benefits that would accompany it in “Create a Single Customer View With Customer Data Integration.” Those benefits included:

  1. Delivering cost reduction by providing a platform for consolidation (for example, the number of call centers) and standardization of processes.
  2. Delivering cost reduction by fixing data-quality issues that create a need for manual reconciliations and lead to wasted sales and marketing expenditure.
  3. Improving the ability to handle risk exposure across product and functional silos.
  4. Gaining potentially large revenue and profitability upside in terms of improved customer cross-selling and retention.
  5. Delivering a better, more-consistent and more-valued customer experience.

Though at the time Gartner geared the piece towards IT executives, CMOs will also recognize all of these benefits as part of their own marketing remit today. (Indeed, while the life-without-silos ambition is inherently cross-functional, as owner of the brand experience, marketing should be owner and orchestrator of these kinds of initiatives.) Which begs the question, “What the hell is taking so long?”

Potholes on the Path to Silo-Free Bliss

Over the years, a consistent set of potholes on the path to Life-After-Silos has arisen, which include:

Resources

These projects always, always cost more than anyone plans for at the outset. Vendors and partners over-promise on what can be delivered out-of-the-box and in what time frame, while IT overstates what it can provide in-house. Furthermore, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to add to the scope midstream, as new features come out or team members come up with additional use cases that they might want to be able to support down the road. Next thing you know, you’re millions deep and have a glorified database to show for it.

Expertise

Ask any marketing leader today and they’ll tell you how hard it is to find and retain exceptional marketing technology talent. There just aren’t enough people to go around and those that are out there get to be choosy. The evolution of the marketing and IT relationship is, let’s say, ongoing, so it’s unlikely you’ll have the kind of project managers and technologist expertise you need to really implement a strategic initiative of this complexity and duration.

Privacy

Customer data is the currency of the value exchange between companies and their customers today. It is arguably the asset with the highest worth for a business. Consequently, any projects that relate to the capture, storage and use of customer data — particularly personally identifiable information (PII) — will receive the greatest scrutiny from executives, IT and legal. At some companies, those barriers are so high as to be insurmountable for a marketing-driven initiative.

Velocity

All three of the bullets above contribute to the fact that most marketing orgs can’t keep up with the speed of change for consumers or technology. It takes so long to get one core system stood up that by the time it’s fully ready, the landscape has changed as to require additional investment at best or to render it obsolete at worst.

The common theme that these four share is they have almost nothing to do with the data and everything to do with the people and processes that manage the data (or the technology infrastructure that collects, manages and analyzes it). For the past dozen years, we’ve been solving for the data issue when all along, it’s been an organizational issue. We tried to fix the egg instead of the chicken.

Tackling the Meat of the Silo Issue

To change course, marketers must:

  • Resist scope creep: Studies show the vast majority of marketers don’t use all the features their vendors provide, a not particularly surprising by-product of buying on vision and not on specific use-cases relevant for the business. The request-for-information phase of a technology buying cycle should begin and end with the most important use cases. Additional phases can add features once the foundation is stood up. This allows you to focus on not just what the marketing organization needs, but also what it can support and in what time frame.
  • Partner with IT on the project plan. Dirty little secret: marketing technology is still … technology. Which means that IT should play a role in choosing solutions, it’s a valuable perspective and one that will help avoid issues down the road. Successful organizations empower marketing as the buyer of their own tech, while affirming that IT can make a valuable contribution to that process. Co-developing requirements in support of the marketing use cases is a great place to collaborate and build trust.
  • Embrace agility. At The Fuse Enterprise conference last November, Nicholas Heling, marketing content specialist at Red Hat, spoke to the audience about how the agile development methodology is applied to marketing and content delivery at the global technology firm. Experiment with creating cross-functional scrum teams with focused but strategic remits for marketing technology, perhaps in support of one use case or responsible for one metric. You’re unlikely to find the perfect arrangement right away, but you will start to move more quickly and accountably. This exhortation applies to your vendors too: invest in technologies that are interoperable and flexible to accommodate your business as it grows and changes.

In 2018, I challenge you to be the chicken and get to the other side of your data silos!