Breaking Down Silos

Tom Morgan

Global economies, competitive advantage, market share, online everything — all terms that we have come to accept as part of our daily business lives. Whether or not by choice, we have all come to expect interaction on a global scale with practically everyone.

However, there is one area that struggles with communication in almost every instance; that being the internal communications of the organization itself. Silo mentality has been discussed in many boardrooms over the past several decades but has recently come to the forefront as the need for competitive advantage has become increasingly more difficult to obtain. Age old conflicts between the departments of marketing, finance, production, etc. no longer have a place in modern business. Too many resources are wasted in ‘re-creating the wheel’ due to the lack of communication. Too often, silo mentality leads departments to believe that their efforts are the most important to the success of the organization when, in fact, all departments are required for efficient and effective operations.

Silos likely occurred when there was a need for exceedingly specialized employees to complete a highly technical task. These teams worked together, trained together, and shared a common goal that was critical to the success of the organization. As time progressed and more goals were achieved, the level of self-importance continued to rise and the silos became stronger. Identified as turf wars in some of the literature, this mentality resulted in information being seen as nearly proprietary to the department and being shared less across the entire organization. But, how can we break through these silos? This is not an easy task for many organizations. Much of the culture and a great share of the thought processes have been ingrained in the departments for decades.

There are a number of ways to begin breaking down the silos. The first being the very cause of the problem itself, working towards a common goal. As competitive advantages become difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain, it takes all departments working together to establish any hope of staying ahead. By tasking all departments to work together to achieve a predetermined goal with an established deadline, teamwork is incentivized, and the departments may, in fact, tend to contribute more so as to be seen as the greatest contributor. Cross departmental collaboration and relationship building will become a valuable asset moving forward, quickening the pace towards achieving future goals. Knowledge is shared and departments begin to see co-workers as an asset rather than competition as they see the function of those departments from the inside.

Following the path of least resistance is a common route in hard science as well as business. Recognizing the problem and formulating a plan to overcome silo mentality is easy; execution and follow up is the resistance. The goal for breaking down the silos must be clearly defined and have quantitative goals to ensure that progress and momentum continue once the plan is enacted. Teams thrive on constant interaction and frequent reinforcement of positive outcomes. Goals must be set in areas that require interdepartmental interaction.

One key aspect to always remember, corporate culture is established and grows from the top down. As leaders, we must lead by example and not simply set mandates for something we are not able or willing to accomplish in our own professional lives. Marshall Goldsmith summed it up well by saying, “One of the most important actions, things a leader can do, is to lead by example. If you want everyone to be passionate, committed, dedicated, and motivated, you go first!”

Thomas Morgan is associate professor of supply chain management and director of the Charles H. Diller Jr. Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and Innovation at the Grove College of Business at Shippensburg University. His email is tvmorgan@ship.edu.