One of the warmly held “truths” in business is that the recurring pattern of “siloing” by people in organizations is a detriment to business success. Siloing is a dilemma in that no matter how organizations structure themselves they end up seeing some form of detrimental siloing. By siloing we mean that people in the pursuit of their individual and local organization goals ignore broader organizational/business opportunities/needs or even contribute in a dysfunctional ways to sub-optimum organizational performance.
Siloing is a phenomena where people persist in looking at an issue through their expert knowledge lens. Because they have been trained to do this, it has worked remarkably well in the past, and they are paid to do so, etc. So diagnosis of the issue and antecedent remedies to the issue are also cast in the “This is the way we do/ought to do it.” mode. We all follow this pattern of behaviour in all aspects our lives. With varying degrees of speed and success we are adaptive to change, but it is rarely quick, not always successful, and never without effort. So if siloing is an issue for the organization, it seems hardly fair or useful to wish that we somehow different.
My take on this is straight forward: if you see an issue continuing to exist regardless of many best efforts to eradicate/minimize it, the problem is not the phenomenon, but the thinking about it. It strikes me that if we are distressed by the constraints of gravity but no matter what we try and do we are still plagued by the consequences of it, the problem is us not gravity. I believe that much of our distress about siloing is like being distressed about gravity.
Let’s examine why we get siloing in the first place:
- Comes with the focus on superior performance. The key in the previous sentence is “focus”. Focus means paying attention to some things at the price of ignoring other things. Focus is a core condition for superior performance in any field (even slothfulness). In this situation, focus is about mental attentiveness.
- Comes with the need for subject matter expertise. In many situations involving complex knowledge areas, to be even rudimentarily competent in the field requires concerted study and this means the consumption of personal time. To be fully knowledgeable means you have to study a particular field of study to the comparative exclusion of other fields. I was hit with this insight when I went to my family physician who questioned what I was reading (while waiting of course) and I said it was the latest HBR journal. He had no clue to what that was (I now know he focuses on medical literature – actually I am glad of that).
- Conventional Performance management systems in organizations. Be honest now – what does your organization really “bonus”. I realize ( in fact I have participated in designing them) that many “contracts” include “looking outside of the walls” goals/objectives in them. The dilemma is though: when you have layered several “number 1 priorities” on busy people what is the expected consequence?
- The current organization of roles focuses on the “Past view of the Future” which is not the “Present view of the Present and Future“. Organizations and the attendant roles are structured to deal with current and anticipated business situations and needs. What if this world view becomes obsolete or even dangerous.
- The Physics analogy: with mass there is gravity and inertia. Mass in organizations is the current business model (physically – infrastructure, mentally – FOR) and all of its attendant investments. Inertia in organizations is the responsiveness lag between recognition of the need to change and speed and time to change. Just recognizing this fundamental theorem is crucial to making organizational design decisions that minimize the ramifications of being in an environment where your FOR and business model are not helpful.
The difficulty of siloing is when the environment changes on the organization. Yet I have seen a lot of discussion in the HR and business journals that argue that siloing is a human nature issue (if only people would be more adaptive, open to considering alternatives, etc.) not a fundamental organizational design issue.
It is a pretty standard strategic decision making approach to do some form of environmental analysis and an aspect of this to describe our anticipated sense of how the environment might evolve or shift. Once there is some form of consensus on this, then the question turns to how best to meet possible future(s). Part of meeting this question area is considering most useful organizational designs. This last part deals with the “Mass” consideration.
The “Inertial” consideration is how to create lead time for change and this gets into the area of leading indicators.
We know how to effectively marshall diverse points of view to meet challenges – project oriented organizational forms. Operational forms of organization by design (and definition) assume the environment is consistent within some anticipatable variance. They are intended to be effective AND efficient – this is the organization’s competitive advantage. Project style organizations are expected to be effective and efficiency considerations are embedded in constraints around timeliness, cost and performance attributes (really the effectiveness measure).
Effective TM does not make mistakes about fundamental attributes of “human nature”. Effective TM is clear on how human performance best operates, how organizations best perform, and embraces this knowledge in TM decisions.