Organisational Silos and Productivity

December 6, 2021

For many businesses, one of their main organisational goals, if not the main goal, is to encourage collaboration between their various teams to improve overall productivity. However, the separate nature of these teams, or silos, is felt by many to contribute to poor productivity and competitive decline, thereby creating the additional goal for leaders of breaking down these silos.

An article in HBR by Herman Vantrappen and Frederic Wirtz at the start of the month argued that, in fact, silos are good for organisations, as they aggregate expertise, assign accountability, and can help provide stability and a sense of identity for employees. Even in the most fluid of organisations, Vantrappen and Wirtz write, silos are a defining characteristic.

Their view, however, is not in the majority, with most advocating for the destruction of such silos.

Building bridges

Within organisations, teams often operate in isolation of each other. This, according to Lars Hyland, leads to confusion, the duplication of effort, and team implementing their own strategies which may be of benefit to their own team, but interfere with others and resulting in unintended consequences.

Writing in Forbes, Brent Gleeson outlines a number of ways to break down the barriers between silos that he argues “reduce efficiency, trust, morale, and productive company culture”. Collaboration is the key, with organisations, as a minimum, needing to encourage the exchange of knowledge between teams and, if possible, merge teams to further improve collaboration. Gleeson feels outlining a unified vision is also crucial, in order to ensure al employees as, as he puts it, “rowing” in the same direction.

The adoption of technology

The importance of building these bridges is widely recognised by leaders, writes Amy Edmondson, but they often struggle to make it happen. Brendan Flattery in Management Today feels that to achieve this bridge-building, businesses need to adopt technological platforms if they have not already done so, especially as firms adjust post-pandemic.

The ways in which this technology can be implemented vary. Dashboards can be adopted to enable easy communication and project tracking; specific collaborative tools can enable easier project management but also can also promote better communication, accountability, and encourage everyone to work together; or straightforward messenger tools can enable both employees to share viewpoints and managers to gather feedback.

Silos in government

Outside of a business environment, one of the key areas of concern regarding the presence of silos is within governments, with worries over interdepartmental cooperation, or a lack thereof, hindering policy development. Writing in the New Statesman in 2015, Vince Cable, who months before lost his seat in parliament after serving as Business Secretary for five years, spoke of his first-hand experience of silos, about which he says “unless there is a mechanism for transcending them, all manner of damaging consequences follow”. More recently, Alex Thomas, Programme Director at the Institute for Government, has spoken of the issues of silos in relation to the UK Government’s aims to achieve net zero and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular on the latter, he outlines the lack of knowledge sharing stating that “pandemic influenza was…firmly on the radar of the Department of Health, and the central Cabinet Office team – it is a telling failure of government that departments across Whitehall didn’t have more plans to respond.”