Collaborating Across Silos

During my time working in the tech industry, one common thing that I have seen at almost every large company is the siloing of teams. Almost everybody has had a bad experience when it comes to siloing, to the point that “silo” has become an ugly word, with many companies claiming to have no silos at all. Consulting companies especially do their best to break down silos so that their consultants can become experts of “everything,” or jacks-of-all-trades. However, the problem is not siloing. Siloing is a necessary tool to organize specialists and maximize focus on a particular objective. The true problem is fostering collaboration across silos, which is actually a leadership issue. Leaders can improve collaboration across silos by fostering an empathetic culture and opening lines of communication.

“Siloing” generally means creating specific teams to focus on an objective. For example: a sysadmin team for managing infrastructure, an architecture team for planning, and a development team for coding. Silos can be small, with separate teams of just a few people, or huge, with entire divisions focusing on separate industries. The biggest problem with silos is that any work outside of a silo immediately becomes less important, leading to less collaboration and inefficiencies. A Harvard survey found that only 59% of people were able to rely on units outside of their own silo versus 84% within their own silo. I don’t think these results are surprising to anybody with experience working in a corporate environment.

Silos often get the blame for poor collaboration because that’s what is immediately visible to those within a silo. Many see silos as the source of incorrect prioritization. Relationships within silos are vertical, which leads to employees focusing on what is high-value to managers. However, for companies to be competitive, the focus should be on maximizing value to customers. That means more horizontal teamwork and collaboration. Silos can make this type of interaction more difficult, but not impossible.

Leaders can foster an empathetic culture within their organizations by utilizing cultural brokers and hiring correctly. Cultural brokers are individuals with the specific task of working with multiple different teams across cultural boundaries to promote teamwork. This role must be supported or even done by senior leadership because it is a difficult task. People have a natural tendency to be uncomfortable with different perceptions, and a liaison officer is essential to bridging silos. However, nothing can fix toxic employees. HR departments should have a measurable focus on hiring people with empathy, which can be just as important as any technical skill.

When it comes to opening lines of communication, leaders should encourage questions, push for network scanning, and set up an all-hands call. Good questions are those that lead to engaging conversations. Leaders should make sure that employees are comfortable asking questions, which will lead to better participation and analysis. Employees should also feel comfortable conducting network scanning, which is the practice of looking for resources and help outside of one’s own silo. An all-hands call, which is typically a monthly meeting where different groups talk about their progress and objectives, can support network scanning as well as break down barriers between silos.

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