Silos, silos everywhere and not a grain to eat

Quaker OatsThe topic of information / knowledge / organizational silos is a popular one amongst consultants, particularly in knowledge management. You'll hear about silos just about anywhere that data access or collaboration or team building or innovation are important. And nearly always, you hear about them in a negative context: silos are keeping people, information, knowledge locked away.

But these silos exist for a reason, right? Sam Marshall and Chris Collison have been riffing on the the reasons FOR silos recently. And I found a reference in my blog archives of Kaye Vivian giving them a positive spin. (And I even have a blog entry where I was stretching the analogy to see if it could go anywhere new.) These pieces are all interrelated in my mind.

I think the main thing about the silo analogy and the reality behind it, is that siloization (new word!) is a natural response to the desire to organize our complicated worlds. Once you get beyond a small collection, humans have the need to catalog and categorize and file things into buckets. The struggle, of course, is that when those silos have been around for a while they seem to become part of the fabric of the organization: people don't see them. Either they don't know they are there, or they are so deep into their own silo, that they can't / don't / won't get out and visit other silos. By their very nature, silos of people begin to develop their own language and worldview. This makes it easier for them to work together, but without some reflection these same things make it harder for others to see and understand what is happening.

What do you do with silos? Break them up? Well… not completely. It's better to acknowledge them help people see how they fit into the organization from a larger perspective. Where do they help? Where do they get in the way? Can we emphasize and take advantage of the positive aspects, while diminishing the impact of the negative? Take the opportunity to think and reflect on how we can work better.

At the very least, make sure you know what's in the silos, so you can make some yummy baked goods.

[Photo: "Quaker Oats" by Dennis Deitrick - this is Quaker Square in Akron, OH. Silos that have been turned into a hotel and dormitory.]

2 Comment(s)

Finally had time to read this post. I kept this post because it refers to all the others post I saw about silo's. So thanks!
I agree with you that we like silo's because it organizes our worlds. I think this also has to do with control. But doesn't this also have to do with human limitations. We organize so we have overview. Doesn't this also relate to strong and weak ties. And the Dunbar numbers. The silo's can be larger than 150, of course I think that's where silo's become dangerous. There was a Dutch entrepreneur that organized his company in cells of 100-150 employees. If these cells grew larger than that, he would split them. But they would still be part of the larger whole. His company was basically built out of silo's.

Thanks, Samuel. Good balancing point about silos. Humans naturally want to categorize and organize (at least humans of the current era). Silos become problematic when they harden into walls.

I think W.L. Gore (i.e. GoreTex) does something similar with its business units. Beyond the Dunbar number, they split the unit.

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