In The Silo Effect, Gillian Tett explores “the peril of expertise and the promise of breaking down barriers. ” As she explains, the word originated in ancient Greece and referred to a “corn pit.” Over time, the word has referred to storage containers for grain and even ballistic missiles to which there is access. In the business world, the term refers to individuals, units or structures that limit (if not) deny unwelcome access. Over the years, most of the so-called “indispensables” I have encountered are in fact “bottlenecks” that hoard information to protect their perceived value. Silos are frequently disguised as people.
I agree with Tett that silos can also be beneficial, especially in a world as complex as it is today. “The simplest way to create a sense of order is to put ideas, people, and data into separate spatial, social, and mental boxes. Specialization and expertise usually deliver progress.”
That said, silos in the business world can indeed be uniquely valuable containers in terms of organizational efficiency and productivity but they can also be major barriers to communication, cooperation, and (especially) collaboration.
Rather than “smashing silos” as Neil Smith recommends in an article for Fast Company, Tett suggests that executives can manage more effectively by thinking like an anthropologist. For example:
o Take a bottom-up view of life. That is, “get out of the office and experience life on the ground, trying to understand micro-level perspectives and patterns” to make sense of the Big Picture.
o Listen and look with an open mind. “Try to see all the different pieces of a social group or system interconnect.”
o Examine the parts of life that people do not want to talk about. “Be fascinated by social silences” and explore them with empathy.
o Compare/contrast what people say with what they actually do. “Anthropologists are obsessed with the gap between rhetoric and reality.”
o Compare/contrast different societies and cultures and systems. “When we immerse ourselves in another world, we not only learn about the ‘other’ but can look back on our own lives with fresh eyes and a clearer perspective. We become insider-outsiders.”
o Most important of all, celebrate the idea that there is more than one way for humans to live. “Anthropologists know that the classification systems we use [to define, evaluate, include, exclude, etc.] to organize our worlds and minds are not; they are usually a function of nurture not nature. We can change our cultural patterns if we really want to do that. We can also change the formal and informal rules that we use to organize the world. Or we can if we stop and think.”
She discusses all this in greater detail on Pages 250-253.
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Gillian Tett serves as US managing editor of Financial Times. She writes weekly columns for the Times, covering a range of economic, financial, political and social issues. To learn more about Gillian, please click here.