When information is held within a single department or team, rather than being shared, we say that it exists in a silo. Silos are created when teams are too focused on their individual goals, metrics, and challenges rather than on the larger organizational goals.
People have been conditioned over time to focus on productivity and efficiency - managing their own work, inside their own functional area as their primary objective. The effect of their efforts on the rest of the organization becomes a secondary consideration.
It’s understandable how information silos arise, and knowledge becomes atomized - broken down into small, digestible parts. However, the cost of trapped knowledge and organizational silos is deep and multifaceted. Silos stifle innovation, conceal risk, absorb time, and burn energy.
Execution is still critical to organizational success; but teams that focus too closely on their own goals and rewards at the expense of big-picture thinking are prone to create and reinforce silos. It takes active strategizing and management to break down organizational silos and promote big picture thinking across a company.
Breaking Information Silos
Three things that can have an immediate impact are:
Employees have been trained that best practices for a meeting involve a clear aim and a well-constructed agenda. While this might have been suitable to meet the needs of the stable manufacturing environments of 20 years ago, this kind of thinking doesn’t effectively meet the needs of modern, agile, rapidly-changing businesses. In fact, inflexible aims and strict agendas only reinforce silos.
Instead of highly-structured, agenda-driven meetings of employees, leaders should consider creating “alternative thinking” teams. These teams are tasked to join meetings and planning sessions for other departments and groups, and enable them to look at their own goals and objectives differently: challenging their assumptions, breaking groupthink, and driving new perspectives in decision-making.
Alternative thinking can be introduced to teams through simulations. Through experiential learning, simulations give groups the opportunity to analyze the ways in which they work together, finding creative solutions to complex problems and exploring new methods of communication and problem-solving.
While creating a strategy to support information sharing is a great first step, the key to breaking silos long-term is to stage effective feedback cycles. This helps to break the habit of siloed information: to teach teams how to maintain relevant knowledge, and share data in a timely manner. Relevance and timeliness help teams across different projects meet localized team challenges: while at the same time supporting larger organizational goals. There are three key parts to this:
1. Decode. Translating knowledge into the correct format, or terminology, so that others can understand and benefit from it.
2. Transmit. Share intelligence effectively with other members of the team, and maintain a shared understanding of business priorities.
3. Interact. Use targeted communication to remove frustration and improve productivity in day-to-day interactions.
With an effective feedback cycle, team leaders build a deep situational understanding - and can tie team and departmental efforts to organization-wide goals and objectives.
Related reading: How to Overcome 3 Key Virtual Team Building Challenges
Setting the stage with a sharing culture, and creating feedback cycles will get an organization started on breaking down information silos: but without a strategy to maintain communications and sharing, people tend to fall into old habits - including keeping information to themselves.
Help employees maintain their enthusiasm to share by thinking in cycle, rather than in a linear fashion. Breaking down silos isn’t about one person sharing information with another: it’s about entire departments and teams sharing data with the entire organization: communicating information that can be helpful in reaching both localized, functional goals and grand organizational goals as well.
Leaders that hold on to insights and knowledge for power or political reasons have limited impact - those that can tie a task to a larger objective are the ones that will create a competitive advantage for their teams and their companies.
A continuous analysis and feedback cycle helps ensure that intelligence questions and information collection efforts are relevant, timely, and tied to the team's decision-making.
Regularly ask yourself:
Quick exercise: Describe a recent example of this cycle in your work. Was there a breakdown somewhere in the process, and if so, what was the impact?
Traditional top-down business structures create and reinforce data silos - and are reinforced by traditional, agenda-driven meetings. Consider new meeting rituals, or creating an ‘alternative thinking’ team, to help break down silos and promote information sharing between individuals and teams.
Breaking down information silos is not a technology challenge: the best collaboration and communication tech in the world can’t solve the silo problem. Instead, address information sharing as a cultural challenge: and create a strategy to promote it, a framework to support it, and a plan to maintain it.
"Culture is the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged or discouraged by people and systems over time”
-Ned Morse, Switch Points