the silo effect

“Silos are cultural phenomena, which arise out of the systems we use to classify and organize the world,” states Gillian Tett in The Silo Effect. Silos are bounded hierarchies that define specialized work or areas of knowledge. They come in the form of academic fields, organizational departments, schools of thought, and many other forms created by humans. They are all based on an explicit or implicit model of how things are done. But all models are imperfect explanations of the world. Forgetting that can make us blind to what would be obvious to an outsider.

Tett first gives an overview of silo thinking and its effects — such as the 2008 financial crash — and goes into detail with examples. This is followed by various stories of silo-busting. The conclusion provides a few rules of thumb. Hierarchies and classification systems are necessary, especially in complex fields of practice, so we will never get rid of silos, says Tett.

The challenge is to find ways to get outside their boundaries and see from multiple perspectives. Silo thinking can be countered by engaging ‘cultural translators’ — “people who are able to move between specialist silos and explain to those sitting inside one department what is happening elsewhere” — but only about 10% of an organization’s staff need these skills.

Helping information to flow requires that everyone not only share data and information but also have the opportunity to interpret information and share their conclusions. Not everyone sees the world in the same way. Cultural translators are also ‘knowledge catalysts’.

Tett also recommends a hard look at pay and incentives. Too often silo thinking happens when people are rewarded for their specialty work but it unintentionally runs counter to the organization’s overall goals. For example, surgeons who are paid on a fee-for-service may recommend more procedures that pay the most but are not best for the patient or the healthcare system. The positive example of silo-busting at the Cleveland Clinic was facilitated by the fact that all staff were salaried. Taking financial incentives away from daily work improves collaboration between departments and professionals.

People also have to regularly question their taxonomies — how they classify the world. I find that senior staff, with decades of experience, often have different taxonomies from younger staff. We can carry these models for years without thinking about them. Finally, technology can help us identify silo thinking. While “data does not organize itself, or break down silos by itself; somebody needs to program the computers. What is needed above all is a big dose of human integration.” Data plus human knowledge can give us better information.

Tett, an anthropologist by training and financial journalist by trade, thinks the mindset of an anthropologist has helped in understanding the silo effect. Anthropologists immerse themselves in the culture, listen and look with an open mind, examine the whole picture, and watch what people do, not just say. “Anthropologists are obsessed with the gap between rhetoric and reality.”

These are practices we all can adopt to some extent. “You do not need to be an anthropologist to get that insider-outsider perspective … We can temporarily jump into a different world by changing the information and news we consume, moving our location, talking to different people, and trying to imagine how life might look through their eyes.” This is a core part of personal knowledge mastery“we can either be mastered by our mental and structural models or we can try to master them instead”. I would highly recommend The Silo Effect, which in addition to being informative, is well written and a joy to read.

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