Hell’s Corner: The Organizational Silo

By Linda Henman, Ph.D.

David Baldacci could write an owner’s manual for a 1957 toaster, and it would immediately shoot to the top of the best seller list. The man can spin a yarn.

This season’s blockbuster, Hell’s Corner, is no exception. I’m currently on page 294 and can’t wait to finish business for the day so I can return to it. Oliver Stone once again finds himself coming to the aid of the federal government and once again finds himself troubled by and immersed in the problems of silos. No one talks to anyone else, and people are dying.

Sound familiar? In many organizations silos keep people from talking to one another, and business is dying. The blame does not lie with the people who should be talking across the silos; it lands squarely on the desks for those in charge. In Baldacci’s novel, agency directors issue mandates about secrecy, but your implications for concealment and silence are no less powerful.

In agricultural terms a silo is a structure for storing bulk materials, often grain and silage. In business terms, the same definition applies. Silos house masses of critical data that stay in the vertical hierarchy with little or no operational reciprocity.

In well-maintained silos, managers serve as information gatekeepers, making timely coordination and communication among departments difficult and seamless interoperability with external parties impractical. Silos limit productivity in practically all organizations and frustrate customers who increasingly expect information to be immediately available and complete. I’m one such customer.

Want to find out whether you have a silo problem? Start with secret shopping. Call or visit your business and ask some questions. How long does it take to get an answer? Do people keep handing you off to “them”? Or does your initial contact take control and find the answer for you?

Here’s another idea. Present a complex problem that requires input from several areas of the organization. How quickly does someone take charge and start putting the pieces of the puzzle together? That length of time should indicate how much collaboration exits on your leadership team.

Busting silos is no easy task. Silos exist to protect and secure. Those who man them will not gracefully or eagerly tear down that which they hold sacrosanct. Only those leaders who emulate Oliver Stone will turn your version of hell’s corner into organizational paradise.


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