“Break down the silos! Break down the silos!” – You hear it everywhere these days. So get up for 30 seconds, get your hands in the air and join yelling: “Break down the silos! Break down the silos!”
For sure “Breaking down the silos” now had a positive effect – on your blood circulation and – if sitting in an open office environment – on the entertainment side.
Martijn Linssen worked out that the metapher isn’t so well chosen, if you address decision makers who have build a carreer in organizational structure that you term with the pejorative expression “silo”, Martijn prefers to “enginize the pistons”.
If we consult Wikipedia, we realize:
An information silo is a management system incapable of reciprocal operation with other, related management systems. "Information silo" is a pejorative expression that is useful for describing the absence of operational reciprocity. Derived variants are "silo thinking", "silo vision", and "silo mentality".
We speak about the tool aspect and derived about the human aspect (mentality, culture, organizational structures).
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On the tool aspect there is considerable progress, and with the advent of Social Media one can speak about flat tools (yet there is still a lot of work on a moving target, so here I join yelling, e.g. to include mobility).
If you look at the human aspect in terms of organizational structures, especially for hierarchical structures, Wikipedia is giving the discussion an interesting twist: Structuring organizations in this way is useful partly because it can reduce the communication overhead by limiting information flow; if I then cite a classic: There is nothing like information overflow, but only filter failure (I was told it was Clay Shirky). The “silos”, or lets call them - just for the fun of it - “taxonomies” appear in a different light: they are filter functions needed to avoid information overflow. Lightheaded thought?
Okay let get some down to earth empirism into the picture. A company, let call it - just for the fun of it - “Ericsson” is deploying a Social Platform (very much internal Twitter / Facebook), since functionality is introduced gradually, it is completely flat. Then in drop x, the “group” / “community” function is available. Off we go, mush room time for “groups”, “communities” – yes, silos. And please note, there was no tool aspect involved, the tool was flat, it is us that demand structure – the term “silo” is clouding the picture.
So we have to acknowledge the facts, “silos” serve a purpose and “silos” will not vanish, on the contrary they are self-organizing. They may reflect a tribal history in human evolution, or they may be connected with our brain capacity (the seven things that we can memorize at the time); anyway they serve a purpose, they create the “home feel factor”. We feel secure, because we know the norms and behaviours and are acknolwedged as individual. We are valued and we create value (needs not to be proven, is accepted truth). We share a common understanding and perspective. And finally we share the same language. This has got huge implications on information and knowledge. “Silos” deploy efficiency (that is the same thought that assigns costs to diversity), because for people, who share the same understanding of context, information is enough to share to create knowledge (knowledge = information + context). The context shared, does not have to be externalized. This is one reason, why it is good enough for me, but not for you (see Ian Thorpe).
So, silos are not bad, but there are bad silos. Since silos have a purpose, it is about harvesting their benefits and at the same time to overcome their shortcomings. In order to optimize, it needs controlled perforation. Many pictures have been used to describe it: Facilitation of the weak ties, Travellers between the worlds, Knowledge brokers. My favourite is Context Creator, because it indicates how to create value in the perforation of silos, the information (with unexpressed, because shared context) is turned via the Context Creator transformed into knowledge, knowledge that is creating value (in contrast to information) outside of the respective silo.
So far I have come with my thoughts, much more I learned, when I put up the questions "What are the advantages of working in silos?" in to a KM community, but a summary of that must wait for the next time.