Wednesday 11 May 2011

Silos and dual loyalties

There is an interesting discussion going on in Linked-in on Silos.

Silo is one of those perjorative terms, which everyone assumes is BAD. And a lot of talk in KM circles is about "breaking down the silos", as if KM is anti-silo and therefore GOOD.

However as the discussion shows, silos are not all bad. There are three main areas of value to silos;
  • they provide focus
  • they develop a closely understood shared context
  • they develop a fierce internal loyalty and feeling of "belonging"
and all of these are conducive to "getting the job done". However a silo taken too far can become isolated, can develop "group think", and can become cut off from valuable external knowledge which could be the key to success. I have seen this happen in the oil sector, where a team working in conditions of extreme secrecy end up making mistakes that could easily have been avoided had they consulted others.

Silos very often follow organisational heirarchy, but this is not always the case, and communities of practice can also form silos (see my blog post - "We build our own silos - groupthink in social media").  This excellent post, "The silo reconsidered", suggests that "the signature feature" of a silo is that it will develop an internal language.  This is particularly true of communities of practice, and a community is often a group of people united by a common jargon.

Part of the key to success here seems to be to introduce "dual loyalties" or "dual belonging", so staff can feel deep team loyalty to their business silo, with a real drive towards business delivery, and at the same time can feel deep loyalty to their practice community, with a real drive towards communal practice development and knowledge sharing.

There is no harm in organisational silo structures, so long as we have INTERSECTING structures. The organisational silos form a vertical accountability/delegation/work breakdown structure, the Communities of Practice form a horizontal practice-based structure, and they intersect to form a connecting network that allows knowledge to flow freely wherever it needs to.

Silos deliver clarity of delivery, and clarity of accountability. What knowledge management can enable, is communication and learning between the silos, which makes that delivery easier and more effective. No need to break the silos down - just help them learn to talk and to learn from each other.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Hi Nick,

You make a valid point and I follow your reasoning all the way through. In terms of structuring communities of practices (bearing in mind all the other factors that are needed to make them a success), would you suggest that they are built along these functional divisions, sometimes referred to as Silos albeit allow a kind of matrix or cross fertilization with other communities within and I guess outside an organisation?

Nick Milton said...

Hi Ash

i think it depends on the company. I would answer "Yes" for any company where the silos represent multi-functional teams and projects.

I would answer "No" where the company is oprganised along functional lines, and where the functions themselves are the silos. In this case, the communities of practice may need to follow another cross-cutting dimension, such as product, or industry segment, or customer.


Brad Palmer said...

Love your conclusion "No need to break the silos down - just help them learn to talk and to learn from each other."

Don Wadsworth contributed another interesting post on "Silos for good not evil" here

Anonymous said...

This is a nice clear explanation as to why communities can also be silos and why silos aren't all bad. I wrote something in a similar vein earlier in the year "Online communities: silo breakers or silo makers?" in which I make the case that communities are a kind of silo, but a much better one than the usual organizational silos

Nick Milton said...


I am not sure that communities are a "much better type of silo" per se, or just much better at delivering their purpose, which is sharing knowledge. It is the organisational delivery silos which create and use the knowledge, and they are much better at that.

gerald said...

Hi, Nick,
thanks for contributions in the community and here, taking the topic forward


Out of the silos - into the silos

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