How to break down silos within your organisation

The tendency to create silos is a natural human one. People are surrounded by so much information, and so many people and processes, that they look for structures and classifications that can help them cope with the chaos and make life more efficient, says Gillian Tett, anthropologist, journalist, and author of The Silo Effect.

Yet, however natural this propensity might be, it often inhibits communication, innovation, and in some cases, the ability of businesses to remain relevant. The structural patterns created to suit one particular context can become outdated when the world outside moves on. Alternatively, the structures become so rigid that colleagues in the same organisation not only fail to share information and join the dots between their varying experiences or perspectives to gain insight, but also end up competing with each other, Tett explained in a recent lecture in London.

One of the many companies that fell victim to siloed thinking in the past is Sony, she said. The company’s Walkman was a hugely successful product in the analogue era, and its name came to define an entire consumer product category. The reason the company’s success didn’t translate into the digital era, said Tett, is that the company was organised into separate departments – one for software and computing, one for hardware, and one for music – all of which were in competition with each other. The structure was rigid. Rather than collaborate, each department insisted on producing its own gadget, even though the world outside Sony was converging very fast. The competing products cannibalised each other, and the company could not maintain its dominance of the portable music player market in the digital era.

Information-sharing initiatives

When organisations break out of those structures, valuable insights can be gained and outcomes achieved. Tett describes a project in New York’s City Hall to more accurately predict fire risk. The city government had traditionally been fragmented into separate departments with little information sharing or collaboration, but by bringing together data held in various pockets, such as pest control visits and incidences of mortgage default, researchers created a much more effective basis for predicting where fires were most likely to occur.

A similar approach was taken to detect the restaurants most likely to illegally dump yellow grease rather than pay a waste disposal company to remove it. Information about kitchen fires and cases of tax evasion were among the types of data brought together from different departments to identify likely offenders. The enforcement agency then linked up with another department involved in environmental waste recycling. Together they approached the restaurants and informed them of the fines applicable for dumping the grease, as well as how to avoid the problem and generate income by selling it to biodiesel companies – a successful outcome all around.

Creating multi-layered networks

Many companies implement management techniques to rotate staff and prevent employees from different areas from fragmenting and becoming tribal. For example, Facebook recruits, no matter how senior, are forced to go on a common six-week training course, Tett said. Theoretically, the objective is to teach participants to code, but in practice the company is looking to create a common bonding experience for that cohort. Maintaining these relationships means employees have an additional layer of social connections on top of their one-dimensional team affiliation. Knowing people in other departments creates collision points where colleagues can swap information and ideas.

Silo-busting ideas are generated in the ‘slack’

The first step for any organisation looking to overcome structural silos is to stop and think about how it classifies the world, Tett said.

“The second step is to realise that we live in an era which worships efficiency and that we are under constant pressure to streamline and to specialise,” she said. “The problem is that when that happens, you cut out slack.”

It’s often that slack that allows people to stop and recognise the silos they are trapped in and to try to imagine alternatives. It’s where the silo-busting ideas are generated.
Initiatives to create layers of social connections require time and resources. But the long-term benefit is ultimately worth the investment. “If you want to be a good leader today, you need to have the courage to defend the slack,” Tett said.

Breaking down social silos via Twitter

Social silos are also barriers to knowledge sharing and innovation. They form when members of a department or profession only speak to people just like them, who all studied the same discipline at the same institution, use a specific kind of terminology, and look at the world through the same lens. However, the most innovative teams have diversity not just of gender, ethnicity, and age, but also of skillset and perspective.

Part of silo busting is colliding with people who have ideas and viewpoints very different from your own. Tett said that social media can provide a way for people to break out of “intellectual and social ghettos”.

Many Twitter users have created a bespoke, comfortable tunnel of information that reinforces their world-view, where about two-thirds of the accounts followed belong to people from the same social or intellectual tribe, creating a sort of social silo, Tett said. She challenged the audience at the lecture to swap these likeminded people in their Twitter feed for people with a radically different world-view for two weeks.

“Try to see the world through their eyes and see what kind of information you receive with that perspective,” she said. 

Samantha White ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.