Working in silos is, without doubt, the most widespread managerial structure even though it is not recommended in any book on management! This is true for private businesses, public organizations, charitable associations, NGOs, and foundations.
On the theoretical plane, in the 1960s, Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch proposed a contingency theory. In their famous book, Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration, they underlined the need to “differentiate” the various entities in the same business in order to adapt them to their respective environments, while, however, at the same time, ensuring the presence of integration mechanisms between the entities to guarantee overall coherence.
More recently, from a systemic standpoint, an abundant literature describes the virtues of transversality and of working in networks of interdependent players. The new technologies are often presented as a powerful catalyst of this transversality that goes beyond even the frontiers of individual businesses. This is particularly the case when steering complex projects such as smart cities, which require a wide variety of organizations. However, going beyond the speeches and the texts, we must acknowledge that in practice the silo is still too often the norm!
What are its characteristics? Firstly, the quest for tightness gets people moving, even if this goal is not stated openly. This entails stopping any information from being leaked, reducing the movement of employees and the sharing of resources between departments or business units. Contrary to whatever the managers in these organizations may say, the focus is on appropriating internal resources, in particular knowledge and skills, which will be jealously guarded. In addition to the wastage caused by reinventing the wheel and duplicating investments, the main danger is that of focussing energy inwards rather than outwards, which is detrimental to acquiring market knowledge.
The question now is how to get rid of this type of work?
There is no magic wand to take up this challenge. However, several practical initiatives can be undertaken to move in the desired direction. The initiative must above all be aimed at the employees’ mental model and in first place that of the managers and directors.
In the course of my empirical research and experience as a consultant in numerous organizations in different countries, I have noted that this tightness is at its strongest at the level of the managers in what they actually do, and not in what they say. Their respective teams are often doomed to work in silo fashion despite the fact that they may want to be able to discuss and share views. Employees very often deplore this situation without being able to do anything concrete to change it at the risk of being sanctioned.
Carrying out an audit can be of use in bringing to light these dysfunctions and in rendering them questionable. The intervention of an external facilitator can turn out to be most valuable. Very often, the directors accuse their colleagues on the board of fostering tightness, without realizing that they themselves also add to it. It is this awareness that must be sought in order to embark on any real change.
The next step is to cascade this awareness-raising process throughout the company by means of workshops that highlight this way of working. However, the further down that one goes in the hierarchy, the more resistance tends to subside.
“Another important lever is encouraging employees to move between units.”
Then, it is necessary to rethink the way of working by introducing transversality. By setting up transversal project groups, breaches will appear, thus diminishing the tightness of the structures. These project groups will be made up of employees from different departments or entities who will work on topics of general interest such as “how to reinforce innovation”, “how to improve responsiveness” or “how to become more customer-oriented”.
It is often necessary to set up training in project management for the teams concerned. The methodological inputs are usefully completed by action learning projects, the real laboratories of experimentation in and learning about transversality. However, one must choose the right target. The project should not be a one-off activity but should become a new way of working. The challenge is to move from project management to management through projects.
Another important lever is encouraging employees to move between units. The Human Resources Department must make identifying high potential individuals and mapping out their professional career a priority. However there again, it will be necessary to overcome any reluctance, given that managers and directors usually want to keep the best people in their units. This requires putting the common good first and acting collectively. Since no employee wants to be a prisoner, the high potential individual who is unable to move forward will look for opportunities elsewhere. It is essential to help create this awareness by showing that a manager acting as a mentor who cares about their employees’ development creates value for the company by assisting their high potential employees to reach key posts, which at the level of their personal network can only be beneficial.
Finally, we should not under-estimate the importance of team building initiatives, as well as inter-entity sporting and cultural activities in this fight against working in silos. Interpersonal relations are often powerful levers for breaking down barriers by building up networks. Technology can facilitate this cooperation, by, for example, allowing employees to contribute to inter-entity communities of practice or profession. Discussions between colleagues holding the same post or working on the same project are unquestionably a source of wealth for both the employees and their companies.
Bertrand Moingeon is Professor of Strategic Management at HEC Paris and former Deputy Dean in charge of Executive Education and Academic Development.