Now apply this concept to the work environment. When the content being concealed inside an air-tight silo is not grain, but important information and a means of communicating with customers, vendors or colleagues, it can become a real problem.
Diversified units with their own management systems and staff hierarchies often work side by side for years without having to share information or interact on a regular basis.
While this may seem practical from a decentralized view in that it allows every department to concentrate on their area of expertise, silos can actually be a barrier to having a healthy and efficient organization. A department operating in isolation sets its own priorities, goals and standards. If it remains too sharply-focused on its own needs, the people in that silo have blinders on to what the other silos are doing.
In other words, the right hand doesn't have a clue as to what the left hand is up to.
A report by Industry Week noted that silos are the biggest hindrance to corporate growth. Another study by the American Management Association revealed that 83 per cent of executives said silos existed in their firms. Of these, 97 per cent believed silos were counterproductive.
The silo mentality can lead to a number of serious communication issues. Managers may be overprotective of their department's activities, even going so far as to act as gatekeepers of information that impacts the rest of the organization. Internally, this lack of co-operation can cause internal competition and even a complete breakdown in communication.
Another predicament is that when a number of departments are engaged with the same customer, there is a danger that the customer is receiving mixed messages when the organization should appear to be united. Elsewhere, transactions that may have been otherwise seamless are disjointed. Information systems may not be well integrated. External marketing may no longer be consistent.
It often takes more time and effort to knock down silos within a large organization than it does to put them up. That's because in order to operate, firms still need to be departmentalized by function and overseen by a number of managerial lieutenants.
The key, then, is to increase collaboration and pave the way for more effective interdepartmental communication. Here are some suggestions for stepping out of the silos:
"ö Mix things up. Find ways to put employees into collaborative teams, such as cross-training workers, making cross-functional teams or placing people in rotating duties so that they can experience other areas of the organization. This will help them gain a greater understanding and appreciation of others' roles while rounding out the skills of your staff.
"ö Hold cross-departmental meetings. Invite representatives from all departments to meet regularly to discuss issues and problem solve as a group. This also allows management to convey "big picture" information and reinforce common goals.
"ö Participate in team-building exercises. Help foster good personal working relationships between team members by holding a social event to celebrate an office-wide achievement or by hosting an off-site learning retreat. This will help peers to interact and see one other as individuals and not just co-workers.
"ö Refocus on the customer. Instead of focusing on each silos' internal issues, put the spotlight back on responding to the needs of customers. Get customers' feedback on their experiences with your product or service and what you can do collectively to improve the way you meet their expectations.
"ö Communicate. There is no more important tool for dismantling silos than honest, frequent and transparent communication. Every department and every employee must have access to the same message internally in order to disseminate the same message externally. Good communication also levels the playing field in order to eliminate competition and mistrust -- the two factors that allow silos to pop up in the first place.
- With reporting by Barbara Chabai
John McFerran, PhD, CMC, F. CHRP, is founder and president of People First HR Services Ltd. For more information, visit www.peoplefirsthr.com.