Organizational silos don’t need busting. They need ventilating.

Posted on March 13, 2014 11:31 am by | Business | Internal

SilosI am officially sick of the silo metaphor and wish it would die.

Everywhere you turn, people talk about tearing down silos, busting silos and smashing silos. Ask a farmer about that, and he’ll doubtless tell you that if you smash his silos, all the grain will fall out.

The idea of silos in organizations is meant to conjure an image of employees isolated from one another, just as different types of grains are isolated in their silos. Organizational change thought leader John Kotter ticks off the consequences of allowing silos to form: Trust is destroyed, communications are stymied, and the organization grows complacent. Nobody wants that.

I’d be willing to bet most of the people who cite the silo metaphor don’t know much about the real things. For example, they have to be ventilated. Do a search on silo ventilation systems; you’ll see what I mean. The grain in those silos is exposed to air; it’s not sealed off.

Silo ventilationMost of what you read about silo-busting talks about eliminating hierarchy and flattening the organization, but there is nothing hierarchical about silos. Organizations don’t establish silos—or boxes on org charts—with the goal of destroying trust, stifling communication and fostering complacency. They do it to allocate resources efficiently.

In the communication world, the rise of content marketing gives us an excellent chance to see the value of silos. There is a real convergence going on thanks to content marketing, a blurring of the lines between the work of different categories of communication. PR, advertising, marketing, branding, digital and various boutique-sized operations all need to work together. Oreo famously convened representatives from multiple agencies to create its 100 Days of Oreo campaign because the skills of each agency needed to be brought to bear in this multi-channel, trans-media world. Some might say we need to bust those communication silos.

Even so, PR practitioners generally don’t need media buying skills; that’s a skill required to work in advertising. Advertisers, conversely, have no need for media outreach. Staffing advertising and PR departments means ensuring each has the skills and resources required to get the job done. Each gets poured into its silo. There is nothing about this arrangement that inherently inhibits interaction with people in other silos. It’s not about the containment of resources; it’s all about the ventilation.

Even if we drop the silo metaphor and go to the more appropriate org chart—I guess “org chart smashing” doesn’t evoke the same mental footage that a collapsing silo does—we can find a reason for those boxes. The org chart can be traced back to military practice. The smallest units at the bottom of the military food chain were configured to achieve a mission even if they were cut off from the larger group. Smaller groups generally achieve missions more easily than big ones, just as it’s easier to turn a speedboat than an aircraft carrier.

Besides, it’s just human nature to want to make sense of big, complex systems by breaking them down into component parts. And again, there’s nothing about the concept of organizing things sensibly that requires a massive hierarchy. Even a flat organization has structure.

If you’re about to point to Zappos, the largest company (so far) to adopt a holacracy, I’ll argue that even in a holacracy, employees are organized into circles. In a holacracy, authority is distributed, but people still have roles and everyone is accountable to the larger organization. I like the idea of a holacracy, incidentally, but I’m skeptical that most companies can make it work. (I’m rooting for Zappos.)

SilosThen there are the silos you just can’t bust because they’re real. Consider a bank branch, where the staff spends all day in the same building, nowhere near other bank employees. You can say the same about factory workers or employees in a distribution center. That’s where they have to be. You can’t just throw them together with the IT department and the design engineers and the procurement staff. Who will be there at the branch when a customer comes in to cash a check?

Here’s the thing: Silos, org chart boxes and circles have nothing to do with the problems silo-busting is designed to achieve. Nor do you need an organization with silos—structurally segregated parts of the organization—to wind up with leaders, managers or workers forming groups that isolate them from the rest of the company. The problem has nothing to do with silos or org charts. It has everything to do with culture. A culture of collaboration can—and often does—thrive in organizations with robust structures.

I worked with one company where the executives, every one of them, ate in the executive dining room. Silo? Nope. Isolating? You bet. Clearly it’s the culture—the way things are done around here—that needs to change, not the structure of the organization. Yes, flatter is definitely better, but a culture in which open communication and a free flow of information is just the way things are done (coupled with the deployment of channels to support it) is required even in the flattest of organizations; otherwise, silos will just form organically anyway.

The thing about grain in silos is that grain doesn’t have legs that can take it to visit other silos. It doesn’t have smartphones, Yammer, email, or Facebook. People do, and a culture that promotes the use of these resources will address almost every issue for which silos and org charts are blamed.

If the silos provide other benefits—as they so often do—don’t tear them down. That’s tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, ventilate them with a culture of open communication and information flow.



  • 1.Great article. I work in a large organisation with about 8 divisions. The part I work in comprises 5 businesses, each with up to 11 sub-businesses. In this kind of environment, busting the silos won't work.

    The trouble we have is that senior management want these five businesses to have one identity. They want to change the culture but they're fighting a losing battle.

    In our case, the silos need to be embraced to show the breadth of what we do while reinforcing an overarching identity.

    Steve Bird | August 2014 | Brighton, UK

  • 2.Great post, Shel. I discovered it more than 18 months after you wrote it, after summarizing my own take on silos. You and I approached the topic differently, but have similar reactions and end results. The applied neuroscience supports us, as you'll see here:

    Hope you're doing well.

    Liz Guthridge | November 2015 | Charleston, SC

  • 3.Good discussion , I learned a lot from the info , Does anyone know if I would be able to find a template permit search copy to type on ?

    brandy angelina | October 2016 | Chicago

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