Two of the most valuable books I have read in recent years are Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril and Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Their authors pose and then respond to questions such as the one that serves as the title of my review of The Silo Effect. Indeed, questions such as these have probably been asked since Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden.
Add Gillian Tett’s book to the list of titles that I highly recommend from among those published in recent years. Her central metaphor dates back to ancient Greece and referred to “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 “indispensable” individuals and groups that I have encountered are in fact “bottlenecks” that hoard information to protect their perceived value and turf.
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.
In her Note, Tett observes, “The paradox of the modern age…is that we live in a world that is closely integrated in some ways, but fragmented in others. Shocks are increasingly contagious. But we continue to behave and think in tiny silos.” Her book sets out to answer these two questions: “Why do silos arise? And is there anything we can do to master our silos, before these silos master us?”
Here is an excerpt from her narrative in which she offers some specific suggestions:
o Keep boundaries (especially in large organizations) flexible and fluid. Create occasions and opportunities for people at all levels and in all areas to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate. “People need to be mixed together to stop them becoming inward-looking and defensive.”
o Develop collaborative incentives, recognition, and rewards. “When employees are rewarded purely on the basis of how their group performs, and when groups are competing with each other internally, they are unlikely to collaborate.”
o Ensure that information flows smoothly. For example, create a culture in which everyone is allowed to [begin] interpret [end] information — and let different interpretations be heard.”
o Periodically experiment with revisions of organizational structure. “Most of the time, most of us simply accept the classification systems we have inherited. But these are almost never ideal: they can become outdated, or end up serving just narrow interest groups.” Try different ways to exchange information with innovative mentoring: people identify what they “really need to know more about” and then the person best qualified fills knowledge gaps.
o To the extent appropriate, use technology to challenge silos. “Computers do not automatically remove silos from our lives.” Humans did and humans occupy them. Computers can be re-programmed to organize data differently, present options in different formats, expedite information exchanges, etc. Computers are not warriors. They are weapons to increase understanding.
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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.