man and woman talking
When employees understand why they should be sharing information, they'll become less likely to hoard it. PHOTO: Bryan Apen

Some of the most common questions we hear from clients involve problems with organizational silos. These organizations are struggling with disparate systems that don’t interface with one another, and the problem can be compounded by an organizational culture that doesn’t promote the sharing of information and resources among various operational units.

The frustration experienced by many of these organizations is exacerbated because it can often be much easier for employees to find the information necessary for their jobs outside the organization than inside. This is clearly not the type of experience that leads to increased productivity and satisfaction. Thankfully, shifts in both mindset and technology could lead to the dismantling of these silos. Here’s a look at ways to improve the situation through communication, evaluation and research.

Answer ‘Why' Sharing Information Is Important

One thing organizations often neglect to do as they embark on efforts to break down silos is to offer an explanation that helps employees understand why it is important to share information and not keep it to themselves or in their departments.

Many individuals feel as though their importance will diminish the moment they start sharing what they know, but what is painfully ironic about this mentality is that the exact opposite is true. Employees who share widely and seek to assist and mentor others usually become the organization’s most valuable people.

Communication is the best tool for ensuring that silos are not perpetuated. As you consider new technology platforms, make sure that your communication and training efforts include explanations of the business value of your new solution and why employees should care about reducing silos. Don’t explain the “how” at the expense of the “why.”

Evaluate Different Applications for Different Problems

Often, when a problem looks familiar we tend to address that problem with solutions we have used in the past. I am a Microsoft Office 365 user experience consultant, and Microsoft is continually developing new offerings to diversify the options available for addressing problems. Unfortunately, that also raises all kinds of questions about when, and in which context, to use what application (it’s a question every client asks, but it is often the wrong question), and Microsoft has admittedly not done a great job on providing guidance for use of its applications.

Thankfully, at the most recent Microsoft Ignite event, the software vendor provided more guidance on when to use applications like Yammer and Microsoft Teams, and that guidance speaks directly to the issue of silos. Microsoft offered new explanations using the terms “inner” and “outer” loops to describe how each tool fits into the larger collaboration picture.

where to start conversations in Microsoft 365

This is helpful when thinking about silos and technology implementations. While there isn’t a clear line between occasions when it is appropriate to use Yammer for wider communications and occasions when it is better to to use Microsoft Teams for narrower team communications (we use Teams for announcements and department and project collaboration, for example), Microsoft’s language of “inner” and “outer” loops provides a helpful framework for thinking about using these tools to reduce silos.

Avoid an Overemphasis on Technology

Despite my last point, we must remember that we cannot lose sight of the problems we are trying to solve when we are choosing between technologies. As consultant Simon Terry helpfully noted, no one works just in one loop, and our guidance and tools need to evolve as the organization’s needs evolve. If you focus on the issue of silos primarily through the lens of technology and neglect the behavior of people in the organization, you run the risk of choosing an unsuccessful solution.

I must continually remind my clients that, before a problem can move forward, it is critical to take time to do user research during the discovery phase in order to clearly understand the problem or problems. Of course, it is impossible to uncover every possible issue before we pick a technological solution and do an implementation, but research (that will hopefully iterate over time) is critical to success.

Maximize Investment in Knowledge-Sharing

Reducing silos has been and will continue to be a main objective for many organizations, and today we have more tools and processes to help alleviate these issues. If organizations keep communication, evaluation and research at the forefront of efforts to identify solutions to their business challenges, they will be able to maximize their investment in their people and reduce years of working in silos.