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Your best people are building organizational silos – here’s what to do about it

It seemed the world itself was crumbling to rubble and smoke

In July 2003, almost 2 years after the terrible and tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the US was still reeling from the devastating attack and the financial troubles that followed.  Two major wars were ongoing. Economies were struggling. In fact, worldwide chaos reigned, politically and economically, as the ripple effects of the disaster were spreading across the globe.

Amid all this confusion, the US Congress released a report about their investigation into the Sept. 11 attack.  What was the most heart-breaking conclusion of this report? They concluded that on no fewer than 12 separate occasions, US intelligence and law enforcement could potentially have learned enough to stop the attacks.  That’s 12 missed opportunities to stop the deadliest attack on US soil in modern history. 12 reasons that the New York skyline was different now.

It came down to a basic failure to communicate

The report went on to say that for 2 years the US Central Intelligence Agency had kept some details secret that, if they had been shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would have likely allowed them to make the necessary connections to act prior to the attacks. The question on everyone’s mind after hearing this was, of course, why hadn’t they shared this information?

In the case of the CIA and FBI, the reason for the lack of sharing turned out to be a combination of security concerns and plain old turf battles.  In organizations whose business is keeping secrets, it’s second-nature to hoard information. Sharing only happens on a “need-to-know” basis. The troubles starts when you don’t know who “needs to know.”

This failure to share information among the agencies of the US government is perhaps the most famous example of “organizational silos.”  Organizational silos are a term used to describe a tendency of information to be segmented in organizations, creating localized stores of information that are not accessible to other departments.  Often, they don’t even know the information exists.

How does this relate to certification programs?

Even if a certification program isn’t worried over the same things as the CIA or FBI, there are surely plenty of questions to keep you on your toes:

  • Are we marketing too much, too little, or to the wrong audience?
  • Are we alienating candidates through poor customer service?
  • Are we keeping on top of industry trends?
  • Is a drop in applications coming that we can’t even see?

The answers to some of your most pressing concerns might just be stored up in an organizational silo, waiting to be discovered.

Silos can form anywhere.  They are sometimes due to competitive behavior, but something as innocent as lack of time or training can also be the cause.  What’s more, your best and brightest are the most likely to build these silos, because they are the ones who get thing done and are “closest to the work.”

Let’s see how making the effort to identify, break up, and prevent silos can lead to major improvements in process, improve morale, and help you head off your organization’s own internal disasters.

First, we have to find these silos.

What’s a silo look like in the certification industry?

For an organization that makes its living from certification activities, a silo will likely take the form of an informal store of data related to certification activities.  I say it is informal because it is created by someone who just wants to get their job done and needs to organize their information. This might be something as basic as a notebook kept by your receptionist, or something as sophisticated as a Microsoft Access database with your certification holders’ work addresses geo-coded and cross-referenced to their conference participation.  It all depends on the tech-savvy of the people doing the work and the data they gather.

The common thread among all silos is that they are not shared with the rest of the organization and it’s often not even known they exist.  The reasons for this may vary, but the lack of visibility is a tell-tale sign.

Silos usually form where the information is produced

The best place to go looking for silos is to look for busy people.  Sure, we’re all busy, but I’m talking BUSY. They say in crime-fighting you should follow the money.  Well, in silo-busting you follow the activity.

Start by identifying the positions in your organization that experience highest number of interactions with others or which regularly receive information from outside sources.  Interview the people serving in those roles and get them to describe what they are actually doing to get the job done. In the discussion, pay close attention to the places they record information or what they refer to.  These are your potential silos.

A word of caution:  Don’t rely solely on policy or procedural documents.  While these may help you identify whom to interview, policy and procedure are often not detailed enough nor followed to the letter.  You need to actually talk to people and find out how they are really doing the job. It can be very enlightening.

Free up the flow of information

Once you’ve identified a few potential information silos and feel as if there may be some additional value stored up in the operation data that your staff have been collecting, it’s time to fix the pipes and get information flowing.  This can take on several forms:

  • If the current format of the data is adequate, you can simply implement a publication policy in which the information is periodically shared.
  • To get the most out of the data, it may be necessary to arrange a new entry or storage method.  You don’t have to get too fancy to see good results. Sometimes a well-designed spreadsheet in a shared location is enough.
  • On occasion, a silo may be identified that is so valuable that an entire information system becomes built around it.  For these, enlist the help of an Information Technology provider or more tech-savvy members of your organization.

You may find it helpful to have a brief “information design” session with the generator of your newfound data and others who might potentially benefit from it.  This discussion may give clues to the best approach to take.

One thing you should be careful to avoid is complicating the existing process.  If you burden the source of your information with too much complexity or confusion, they will simply work around the edges to get their job done.  Avoid disrupting existing workflows unless there are strong productivity gains for the ones doing the work!

Awareness can do the work for you

The best way to deal with organizational silos is for everyone to be on the lookout.  The staff who are most likely to create silos are the very ones who can provide the most value to your organization if given the right guidance.  They want to do a good job and in that pursuit they will create these datasets of their own accord, even if they think it benefits no one else.

So if management sends out a consistent message placing a value on identifying and utilizing these hidden data stores, your silo-creators can know to offer up their own data and thereby benefit the organization.  Focusing your staff’s awareness on your mission goals and how operational data can help you reach them will begin to affect how they perceive their day-to-day activities.

It’s not just corporate turf wars

As you look further into rooting out your own organizational silos, you may find organizational experts who focus on silos that occur due to lack of information sharing due to departmental conflict, mission segmentation, or budgetary competition.  It’s true, there are some people who are just pre-wired to think in terms of “mine vs. theirs,” and “our team vs. their team.”  Others become so focused on their own personal or team goals that the overall mission of the organization is forgotten or secondary.  While these are all valid concerns, your best people are also, through their own competence and drive, some of the most likely to create silos. Once you’ve communicated the desire to bust apart these silos and shown the benefits to your mission, you may find these same people simply offering up data that would have previously remained siloed.  It’s up to your organization’s leadership, however, to start the ball rolling.

Where are the silos in your organization?  Why not start asking around today?

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