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Written by: Janet Waner, CPHR

Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. (Henry Ford)

A general notion about silos is that are a work place phenomenon that needs to be busted, smashed, torn and broken down. Before we get out that wrecking ball, however, we should take a moment to assess the situation. What are silos anyway and are they really so bad that they need to be destroyed? A silo consists of a person or people who perform a particular job function or who work in a particular business unit/department. Finance, Information and Technology (IT), Operations, Human Resources (HR) Departments are example of silos. An individual or team focused on a particular project would also be an example of a silo.

Silos exist in every company: big and small; for profit and not for profit. They form because businesses need subject matter experts who focus on specific job functions, tasks or projects. The finance department, the IT department, the Operations Department and the Human Resources department need to be working on department specific initiatives and goals in order to ensure that each department is the best that it can be. Since these groups naturally spend so much time together working on their own common goals, they become separate teams.  

The problem, however, occurs when these groups do not interact with one another and do not share information. They put up walls to keep each other out because they perceive themselves as being in competition or battle with one another.  Instead of focusing on the bigger picture of success of the entire business, they get tunnel vision. They focus solely on their departments and on their projects. What they fail to take into account is that projects within departments impact other departments and the whole business.

Another negative side effect of silos is that people tend to bond only with people in their own departments. Since different departments have different priorities and objectives and the people within them tend to have these in common, they form sub-cultures or cliques. Instead of the organization having one culture and being one team, the organization is divided into groups of people with their own sub-cultures who have nothing in common except for the company they work for. In other words, they form an “us” versus “them” mentality within the organization.

Silos are not all bad. In order for organizations to achieve their goals, they need people to take ownership of a particular business function or project to ensure that the best is delivered.  This ownership is meant to ensure accountability. In other words, if people are assigned to work in a specific department or on a specific task they know what they are accountable for and what is expected of them.

The silo walls do not need to be busted, smashed, torn and broken down. Destroying these groups will destroy the good that comes out of dividing into groups and departments, but will not address the problems that can occur. If silos are impacting the organization’s culture in a negative away, that is what needs to be addressed. If there are sub-cultures, cliques and “us” versus “them” rivalries, then organizations need to work toward being one integrated team. Instead of smashing walls organizations need to build windows and doors and then open them up.  People need to be aware of what is happening in other departments. Different departments need to interact with and cooperate with one another.

There are many examples of departmental activities that impact that whole business. If the IT department is planning on a shut-down in order to perform system upgrades, it would be important for them to be aware of the routines of other departments in order to plan their shut-down at the most convenient time. Additionally, if other departments are aware of a system shut-down in advance, they can plan their tasks around this. If the Human Resources department is planning on changing the format of performance reviews, it would be beneficial to collaborate with the individuals that conduct performance reviews in order to ensure that everyone is getting the most out of this process. When other departments need to enforce department specific rules through documented discipline, the HR department needs to understand those rules in order to stand behind the discipline that is issued. When departments share information with one other and collaborate, they are more successful.

In order for such fundamental changes to occur, there needs to be support from the top down. Senior leadership needs to encourage other departments to collaborate and must be engaged in the business. Additionally, Key Performance Indicators and other goals which influence bonuses need to involve inter-departmental cooperation as opposed to only involving one’s own department. Organizational objectives need to be clearly defined and each person understands what their role is in ensuring the company’s success with respect to these objectives.

It is important for people to know what is going on in the company for people to be aware of the projects that individuals and departments are working on. Departments need to share information and collaborate. One way to do this is for organizations to schedule formal meetings that bring together members of different departments. These meetings need to happen at regular intervals and must involve senior leadership. Another way to bring people together is to host company social events and team building events that allow colleagues to interact outside of the office. In addition to structured opportunities for people from different departments to collaborate and interact, the organization needs to strive for this to be the norm. 

The best way to sum this entire up is to think of organizations as being like an orchestra. An orchestra consists of many people playing different instruments who come together to play one piece of music. The flute players need to practice with each other, but without the rest of the orchestra. They need to collaborate and learn from one other in order to ensure that the flute section of the piece is in harmony. The clarinet players, the French horns, the trombones, and so on, need to do the same thing. In effect, they need to operate in silos. In addition, the orchestra needs to practice as a whole. The flute, clarinet, French horn and trombone players as well as all of the other musicians need to collaborate in order to ensure that their sections come together and complement each other. When they do that, they achieve their goal of making beautiful music.

Janet Warner has been a CPHR since November 2012. She has experience with many aspects of HR including incident investigations, employee relations, full cycle recruitment, disability management and employee engagement. Janet holds a BA and an MSc in Psychology and has been an active CPHR Alberta committee volunteer for the last 3 years.