Yesterday I submitted the typescript for my book Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work to Gower who will publish it in the first half of next year. After a long period of research and writing alongside the day job this milestone has caused me to reflect on my reasons for starting the book.
Throughout my career I have been working to improve relationships between people in organisations and sometimes between separate organisations wanting to work together. Facilitating improved working relationships between organisation silos has been a big part of this. Organisation silos can be like different countries, or even parallel worlds. Even in a single organisation, people in separate divisions or teams can talk a different language and have different work cultures that they each find difficult to understand and relate to. Add to that the multitude of different individual personality traits, behaviours and styles and it is easy to see why busy people may not take the trouble to involve others on a wider basis when they feel they can do a job quicker themselves.
That is not to say that silos cannot be helpful, for example where people need to focus on targets or get specialist results. Organisation structures after all are meant to be helpful. They group specialists and functions into learning communities, focus people on results and orientate them as to who does what and where. However, where people identify too much with the particular space they occupy and boundaries become rigid and impervious then problems can and do occur. Where cooperation and collaboration is needed and there are barriers to achieving this, the cost to the organisation can be very high. Some of the costs include a lack of shared learning and innovation, delays in getting work done, unproductive conflict, stress and significant financial costs due to programme failures.
There are many ways in use today to increase collaboration in organisations, yet somehow they don’t always succeed, become sustainable or inform the learning of others who inevitably share the same fate. There are numerous examples in organisations and in the public domain of breakdowns that occur within and between organisations and the cost this can bring about.
On Wednesday 20 April 2011 Sony’s PlayStation Network, with around 77 million users, was hacked into by criminals who stole personal information. A report in The Guardian newspaper on 27 April explained that:
Since Stringer’s appointment in March 2005 he has struggled to break the company out of its “silo” organisation that has prevented coordination between different divisions.
The impact of the security breach on Sony’s share price and reputation are well known and data protection law suits were also filed.
This happened 21 years after the publication of Peter Senge’s seminal work on the learning organisation, The Fifth Discipline (Senge 1992), that explained how organisations are like systems and people and events are interconnected. It also happened 17 years after the publication of Will Schutz’s The Human Element (Schutz 1994), a book outlining his teachings over 30 years that point towards personal rigidity and defensiveness as the main causes of ineffective teams. Fitjof Capra (2003) and Margaret Wheatley (1992, 2007) have expertly translated the discoveries in the scientific and philosophical fields into the organisation arena, explaining the symbiotic and co-created world we live in. We also live in an age where we are all a lot more aware of the interconnectedness between people and events on a global level. Witness the impact of the recent financial crisis across the world.
Despite this awareness and all the approaches and tools available — and there are many — something seems to be missing. As one board director who contributed to the research pointed out: ‘In most companies silos haven’t changed, yet everything else has. Why not this?’
Writing this book was for me a journey to better understand how we can reduce the downside of silo working and achieve greater collaboration within and between organisations. It evolved over the period of research and writing as I sought to answer the questions:
- Do we really know why silos develop?
- Why are they so difficult to break down?
- Why has silo working been so prevalent for so long?
- Why is it so difficult to get joined-up thinking and integrated working in a team and even more so across an organisation?
- What influence does the senior leadership team have over this phenomenon?
- What are the best ways to approach this problem — at individual, team and organisation levels?
One thing that became clear to me, perhaps not surprisingly, is the complexity of the issue. Not surprising because people and organisations are complex. One contributor to the research even suggested that there isn’t a problem with ‘silo working’, just complexity. Recognising the complexity, I continued with the belief that some ‘joined up’ thinking could emerge that would build on current knowledge and practice, challenge existing approaches and point towards some more sustainable ways of tackling the problem.
My thanks go to everyone who helped me with the project. I’m now looking forward to the next phase in the publication process and sharing more learning and insights with you along the way.
Liberating Potential Ltd.