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Working in silos

27 May 2021

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Working in silos

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What does working in silos mean? In simple terms, working in silos means operating in a kind of bubble—on your own or as part of an insular team or department.

Although the historical definition of a silo is a container (traditionally used on farms for storing grain or cattle food), the word also has a more abstract meaning today. It is often employed as a metaphor for groups of people (e.g., a team is a ‘container’ of colleagues) who work independently from other groups.

According to Dr. Gillian Tett, an anthropologist turned financial journalist, ‘silos are cultural phenomena, which arise out of the systems we use to classify and organize the world.

Steven Poole argues, furthermore, that ‘silos exist when people in different parts of an organisation don’t talk to each other or share information enough’.

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What is a silo mentality?

While the phrase ‘working in silos’ may refer to a kind of tribalism within a company, it can also refer to the way a person thinks. A silo mentality is a way of thinking that is rigid and somewhat simplistic. Indeed, a person who thinks in terms of silos might struggle to see beyond established ways of doing things. In other words, they lack what is called ‘fluid intelligence’: the capacity to think flexibly across boundaries. Additionally, although they might be a specialist in their particular field, they might fail to connect what they are doing to the work of other individuals or departments.  

Keeping things the way they’ve been is comfortable. All comfort has done is maintain the status quo.

— Luvvie Ajayi Jones , TED Talk , Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

For Kate Turner, director of Motivational Leadership, working in silos means that groups ‘do not want [my emphasis] to share information or knowledge with other individuals they work with.’ Although Turner is right to reflect on the lack of collaboration that occurs in siloed organisations, her point regarding the intentional nature of silo working, as something that employees actively choose, requires further discussion.

Indeed, groups and individuals may work in silos without realizing that they are doing so. Although they might welcome opportunities to share information and knowledge across traditional boundaries, their organisation’s structure, culture and training may not facilitate this way of working.

In this respect, a silo mentality is not necessarily a consciously chosen mentality. Silo working is often a result of a siloed organizational culture that does not provide opportunities for collaboration or encourage employees’ buy-in to a unified goal.

It is at the edge that most innovation occurs and where we can discern patterns that indicate new kinds of opportunities and challenges.

— John Seely Brown , New Learning Environments for the 21st Century

Embracing messy realities: moving beyond a silo mentality

If you grew up in a Western country, you’ve probably been immersed in a culture that organizes, classifies and categorises the world in terms of silos. This was something that the Victorians loved to do at the height of 19th century expansionism. In observing, naming and categorizing foreign cultures, animals, plant specimens and geographies, they felt a sense of mastery—and power—over the unfamiliar things they named. Yet, often, the classifications said more about the European observers than the complex local realities of their subjects.

While silos appear to offer security and control, they can also lead to simplification and rigid thinking. As Dr. Tett argues, ‘Things fall between the cracks. Life does not always fit into the official descriptions of what people are supposed to do. Much of the time we ignore these messy realities. It feels easier to stick with the neat classification systems we have than constantly rewrite them.'

However, neat classifications and boundaries are undeniably useful—and often crucial—in the realms of business, government and education. Poole rightly argues that ‘[t]he opposite of silo syndrome, after all, is treating everything like an enormous homogeneous blob.’

Nonetheless, a rigid silo mentality can be detrimental to progress and productivity. Working in silos means that there are fewer opportunities for creative solutions and joined-up thinking. Moreover, siloed working can mean that although ‘experts’ have highly specialized knowledge, they may fail to see the bigger picture and spot serious risks.

Did silo mentalities cause the 2008 financial crash?

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Dr. Tett began reflecting on the reasons for the disaster. She deduced that the modern financial system was surprisingly fragmented in terms of how organisations were structured and how individuals communicated with one another: ‘everywhere I looked in the financial crisis it seemed that tunnel vision and tribalism had contributed to the disaster.’ People were working inside their specialist departments with a silo mentality.

Some savvy individuals noticed how they could profit from others’ ignorance of the dangers of silo working. Dr. Tett cites the famous case of Andrew Feldstein and his hedge fund, BlueMountain Capital: ‘Studying classification systems—and silos—was part of their trading strategy. And this often paid of dramatically.’

Indeed, Feldstein found opportunities that bankers had not spotted because they had been, as Dr. Tett argues, ‘trained and incentivized to only focus on the bits of finance that sit directly under their noses, instead of seeing the bigger picture. By taking a broader view of the financial services industry, and in noticing patterns in financial flows that most banks had not spotted, Feldstein was able to jump between different markets and make profitable trades.

Clearly, Feldstein’s story demonstrates that if organisations do not make efforts to avoid working in silos, they may be vulnerable to the exploitation of boundary-crossing individuals and competitors.

How do you overcome a silo mentality?

When you have an environment in which people can cross traditional boundaries between teams, business functions and sectors, people tend to be more creative. Adopting Dr. Tett’s approach, it’s important to consider how to ‘master our silos, before these silos master us’.

Business professionals can adopt a flexible and questioning mindset that does not take words, categories, structures and systems for granted. To master silos means to maintain a fresh perspective, to see things as they are now, to ask questions and to think for yourself. It’s about having the willingness to trust your own perceptions instead of relying on traditional paradigms because they are, well, the way things are done.

Fostering collaboration in the workplace

Although the digital revolution, accelerated by Covid-19, has arguably led to more collaboration across companies via MS teams or Zoom meetings, it has also led to more home working—with the future of ‘the office’, as we know it, now in jeopardy. Indeed, remote working threatens to reinforce existing silos as teams feel more disparate and disconnected from a unifying office culture. With no (or fewer) in-person social activities, employees may feel that they are in professional relationships with avatars and struggle to seek out opportunities for collaboration.

The paradox of the modern age, I realised, is that we live in a world that is closely integrated in some ways, but fragmented in others.

— Dr. Gillian Tett , The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers , 2016

Strategies for avoiding a silo mentality:

Collaborative technologies.

For example, real-time document collaboration software facilitates easy and secure collaboration across continents. Track the specific date, time and authorship of any amendments in order to have a highly detailed audit trail.

Company-wide events.

You do not need to be working on the same project in order to get together. For example, Ideagen hosts Spanish classes, tea mornings, dance classes, pizza workshops and many more events. Activities such as these give employees a chance to network in a relaxed environment, make friends and naturally find out more about different areas of the company.

Regular collaboration meetings.

Managers can set-up projects across teams and hold regular collaboration meetings.

Office working.

This is currently a controversial topic! Employers are still figuring out what a post-pandemic working model will look like. Many companies are embracing a hybrid model of both home and office working. While many are enjoying the comforts and convenience that home working can bring, office environments are still vital to collaboration across silos. When we go into the office, we have more opportunities for making connections—possibly with people that we would not otherwise have met—and sharing ideas. The buzz of the office environment can also energise and motivate employees to feel part of the company’s wider culture and identity (beyond their specific teams).

Encouraging personal responsibility for collaboration.

Leaders throughout the organization can encourage employees to find their own ways to connect with others across the business. They, and all employees throughout an organization, can take personable responsibility for finding ways to collaborate across teams and departments.

Of course, any employee’s main responsibility should be to fulfil the duties of their role and cross-team collaboration should not be prioritized just for the sake of it. However, collaboration can have excellent commercial benefits for the company. By having diverse people, with diverse personal and professional backgrounds, in the same room (physical or virtual), you are more likely to generate healthy conflict, diverse ways of thinking and innovation.

Moreover, cross-department collaboration also provides important career-development opportunities for individuals. The more an individual knows about diverse areas of the company, and how they work together, the better equipped they will be for leadership responsibilities in the future.

Find out how our real time document management software can help you avoid working in silos and foster smarter, more efficient and secure collaboration across your business.  

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Written by

Nicola Pearson

With a background in research, Nicola Pearson is a blogger on all things business, financial and technology. She is passionate about the topics of wellbeing, leadership and collaboration in the workplace. She enjoys hiking, travelling and yoga in her spare time. 

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