Organizational Silos: The Enemy of Collaborating and Learning Online


I like to read the Corner Office interviews that Adam Bryant does in the New York Times each Sunday with Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of big companies.

Bryant’s questions invite guests to talk about the influences that shaped them and their leadership practices. Sometimes I identify with what they say and wonder how I would respond if asked. Other times, they provoke me to want to know more and I meander online to satisfy my curiosity.

Lois Braverman, CEO of the Ackerman Institute for the Family

Lois Braverman, CEO of the Ackerman Institute for the Family

When Bryant interviewed Lois Braverman, CEO of the New York-based Ackerman Institute for the Family, on February 8, 2015, Braverman promoted the value of honoring various perspectives. Braverman talked about the need to “make room for the legitimacy” of each viewpoint and “not let my righteousness make me think my perception is more meaningful than yours.” On a daily basis, she said

…there may be differences in terms of how we define the problem, because it can be different depending on where you sit in an organization. There’s an administrative reality and there’s a front-line worker reality, and those realities are very rarely the same.

Organizations that have silos where it is “us” against “them,” are polarized indeed. Braverman notes in these circumstances that “People really start to demonize, pathologize, or psychoanalyze others, and to see their colleagues through a negative lens”  and “Organizational conflicts escalate when people don’t feel heard.”

Her comments made me think about organizational silos. I did not question her assessment of the impact of “us” against “them” but wondered if silos are inherently bad. I asked myself: don’t most organizations structure like-with-like specialties and functions? What’s wrong with marketing being located in one department and sales in another? Or human resources here and direct services over there? When do these business units evolve to become (cue the Jaws theme) dreaded silos? And how do computers connected to the internet/intranet help workers cope with, ameliorate, or overcome negative silo-effects?

From Evan Rosen, author of The Culture of Collaboration, and frequent contributor to Bloomberg Business, I learned that “The term ‘silo’ is a metaphor suggesting a similarity between grain silos that segregate one type of grain from another and the segregated parts of an organization.” So wheat goes with wheat, corn with corn, and related functions together in the same department.

I wanted to find benign or positive examples of organizational silos, and did find a couple. Grouping functions “is a reality for every organization,” said Ann Clancy, the national director of human resources and volunteer services at the Canadian Red Cross, to Sondi Bruner in a blog post published at the Charity Village website in 2011. Clancy emphasized that “It’s important for leaders to talk about what silos add. They do have a place in organizations to allow for focusing on what you’re responsible for, moving things forward and getting jobs done.”

Neil Smith at the Fast Company agreed:

Silos are necessary in companies. They provide the structure that allows companies to work. Every company is split into divisions, departments, or groups, such as sales, technology, and finance. This structure allows expertise in different areas. In companies, silos tend to be places where information, focus (another word for choosing priorities), and control flow up and down.

Far more often, however, “silos” are shorthand for organizational dysfunction. Evan Rosen summarized the impact this way: “When people are culturally inhibited [in silos] from interacting across departments and functions, they avoid sharing data and information outside of their silos. It’s a vicious cycle, one that can cost an organization in agility, productivity, and responsiveness.” Further, silos can “impact business units, wreaking havoc with customers.”

Smith, Clancy, and Myka Osinchuck, CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation also offered examples of silo metastasis. Smith observed in the Fast Company article that “…company silos also cause problems—that same structure prevents the flow of information, focus, and control outward. And in order for a company to work efficiently, decisions need to be made across silos.” Clancy and Osinchuck concluded that “People become so involved in their own tasks or service provision that they lose sight of the larger picture, and can no longer see another department’s point of view. This is where communication begins to break down, personality conflicts may develop and the organization begins to struggle with achieving its main vision and mission.” Many other bloggers and researchers echoed and expanded on this assessment.

How can the negative effects of silos be reduced or eliminated, and collaboration and learning encouraged instead?

Rosen, in his Every Worker is a Knowledge Worker article, featured by Bloomberg Business magazine, offered five steps below to step away from silos into a more collaborative culture.


Rosen also acknowledged in an interview with Kellye Whitney at Talent Management magazine in November 2013 that it takes more than internet connections, communication tools, or social media to prompt collaboration. Nor can collaboration be ordered from on high. He said that “Forcing people to collaborate … is trying to use a command-and-control message to achieve the opposite of command and control — collaboration.” Instead he recommended changing the structure of the organization to encourage “collaborating across generations [of workers], across functions, across levels, and across regions to create greater value.” His view that “it takes more than tools to collaborate, and it’s quite possible to use social media without creating any value” resonated with me, too.

Bottom line for me: it takes leadership and a uniting vision to build a culture to get the right things done well across an organization. Entrenched silos block collaboration and learning because they deny respect to workers with skill and knowledge located anywhere but in the silo.  It is a portrait view of learning, decision-making, and circle-the-wagon defensiveness that ignores the organizational landscape where expertise and willingness to partner may reside.  It also denies the organization and the individual workers the benefits of diverse networks that cross boundaries of all kinds. Similarly, an enterprise platform or online discussion group will not lead to learning or change in behavior without leaders’ role modeling and participating collaboratively themselves. Tools, technologies, and posting in social media without purpose are not enough to change a culture. Leaders and employees must as Braverman urged in her interview with Adam Bryant, “hold on to the idea—as a genuine, authentic, core belief—that everybody is really doing the best job that they can, and that they are a resource for you.” And that “everything [an organization does] has to be in service” to its customers/clients.

What is your bottom line with regard to silos in organizations?

Do you see them more often as constructive or destructive?

What have you seen tried or done yourself to change organizations to move away from silos that hoard ideas, protect turf, and control decisions to foster collaborative cultures that value and engage workers striving to serve constituents?

Featured image of silos courtesy of Public Domain Photos at Pixabay

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