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5 Great Things About Silos

Grain silos

Photo: Calvin Dellinger http://www.flickr.com/photos/cstreetus/3381285097/

For many years the mantra in knowledge management, and more recently in collaboration circles, has been:

“We need to break down silos”

Yet silos are so common that I’ve been wondering if they have a role to play, or if they’re an unfortunate side-effect of something else? Here, then, is my list of 5 great things about silos:

  1. They can foster collaboration. When you need a group of people to work together effectively, they need a common world view. Even better if they have shared values, terminology (read: jargon) and approaches. A tightly-knit department will have all of these characteristics. The very unity of their thinking is what makes them more silo-like. If it’s a hospital team doing an operation or a sales team completing a bid, work goes more smoothly with these things in place. When people say silos are a barrier to collaboration, what they mean is specifically cross-silo collaboration and quite often really what they mean is innovation. In that context, then yes, silos are an issue for efficient working, but the bringing together of different world views is very good for innovation…eventually.
  2. Belonging. We naturally like to identify with a ‘tribe’. Often this is defined by context. Abroad I might bond with anyone British, in Britain I might identify with a fellow Yorkshireman, but take us both to Yorkshire and we might find we’re from ‘rival’ towns. Within organisations, silos reflect a tribe that is an important part of belonging. In corporate speak we’d celebrate this as “employee engagement”. Dunbar’s number implies that tribes have natural limits, so if it gets too big we end up splitting it – making a new silo.
  3. Filtering. As Clay Shirky pointed out, often the issue isn’t information overload but a failure of filtering. By working within a silo, we are using the people around us to help filter out irrelevant information and highlight what’s important. This works well 90% of the time. The issue is that when something important comes along that doesn’t register with the common world view of the silo so it gets filtered prematurely (as was the case with Frank Whittle’s jet engine when first presented to a disinterested RAF in 1937).
  4. Trust. Related to #1. One of the reasons experts don’t like to share is that they fear their knowledge will be mis-used by people not equipped to apply it. Electricians may know short cuts that are safe “if you know what you’re doing” but which they’d never advise a member of the public to do. Having a silo creates a trusted environment where such knowledge can be shared because you can assume competence.
  5. Direction. When a silo has a cohesive sense of purpose then it reduces the inertia to action. In effect clear boundaries mark the edge of where a group can act without further consultation. It is very hard to grow or manage a group above a certain size, which is why federated / franchise / hub-and-spoke models are so common. Without silos we’d grind to a halt in endless consultation with people who are not sure if they’re in or out.

Postscript: I just read useful distinction between collaboration and teamwork by Andrew Campbell. Although I don’t agree with how narrowly the author defines collaboration, it helps clarify my first point – silo’s are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration as Andrew defines it.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

  • Posted at 1:50 am, 13 September, 2011

    Agree. Agree. Agree. Agree. Agree. (5 times!)

    For more on the merits and pitfalls of silos see…


  • Posted at 2:13 pm, 15 September, 2011

    Hi Sam,
    Now that is spooky!

    I’ve just blogged this:

    What is it thay say? Great minds think a like, fools never differ? :O)
    Great post, by the way!

  • Posted at 7:56 pm, 20 September, 2011

    5 Great things about silos – Sam Marshall…

    This article has been submitted to Intranet Lounge – Trackback from Intranet Lounge…

  • Posted at 11:36 am, 21 September, 2011

    Wonder how much of this is just semantics … we like ‘communities’ but we don’t like ‘silos’ – communities we associate with fluidity; silos with rigidity … communities with choice and openness; silos with locked and closed. But perhaps they have more in common than we have been prepared to admit to date. Ultimately, we want people to share and learn in safe and trusted ‘groupings’ and we want fluidity in those groupings … whatever we choose to call them.

  • Posted at 4:38 pm, 21 September, 2011

    I really like it that you swim against the tide here. Of course silos are great, otherwise they wouldn’t have come into existence. The other side of the coin is that sometimes they make people very introspective and get in the way of good service design. I used to work in the NHS which had (has?) the most rigid silos across clinical professions. Patients bump into these all the time being passed from one team to the next having to repeat symptoms give information over and over.

    Silos of course are great for finding people, which I am very interested in. As you say they can foster collaboration simply by making it obvious (usually through an org. chart) where you would someone to help you with a problem or issue (does this count as collaboration?) If you are interested I have written about this here http://findaperdson.tumblr.com/post/4413754711/i-love-org-charts-on-intranets-sometimes

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