Why We Love Silo Working And What To Do About It


In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Nearly 30 years later, silo working is one of our most enduring management buzzwords.

They’ve gone nowhere – so are silos really such a problem?

Truth is, we love them.  They give us a lot of security and belonging.

Silos don’t just exist at team level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

You may have your own silo at a personal level. Most of our online social networks – particularly professional social networks – conform to the functional silo system. We follow and connect with people just like us.

You see, the much maligned silo actually has a great deal going for it.

untitled-presentation-3Silos are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration. And in a networked era – we need to adopt very different strategies.

I’m currently doing some work with David Anderton and the team at Bromford to redraw the relationship between 30 different service areas. It’s a fascinating exercise as you get to work with colleagues to draw a fantasy version of your organisation and then make it happen.

The lesson I’m learning is that our desire for operational efficiency has adversely affected interoperability between teams.

That’s not a bad thing per se – Bromford has a Moody’s AA3 rating and a core operating margin of 43%. Efficiency has a definite benefit! However we don’t want to rest on our laurels as we move to the dizzying challenges of the future.

In the book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes taking command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. He quickly realised that conventional tactics were failing. Although the allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, technology and training – they were no match for the adaptable and networked nature of Al-Qaeda.

After watching Al-Qaeda confound the army and win battles, McChrystal saw that the problem wasn’t one of capability, but interoperability.

Each time valuable intelligence was gathered it tooks weeks for the data to be distributed. Also – the information flowed through silos. Information was sent up the chain of command, where it was passed on to other teams who would then develop strategies for the frontline.

The individual teams were all experts , armed and trained beyond the capabilities of their foe.

They were meeting all their individual objectives.

Yet the shared mission—defeating Al Qaeda—was being lost.

The answer was to build a “shared consciousness,” through the creation of a network of teams.  This encouraged agile interaction, embedding the data intelligence within localised units and conducting daily status calls that included all of the stakeholders.

As McChrystal has said, “it takes a network to defeat a network”.

The focus on interoperability did reduce the efficiency of individual teams but the overall mission was accomplished. 

Our job right now is exactly that – to reduce the efficiency of silos, whilst boosting the interactive capacity of small networked teams.

In the digital age we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency.

We must optimise our silos to work together – as networks in the context of a fully understood mission.

Learning faster than the rest, and acting accordingly, is a new competitive advantage.

Bromford Design Principle Eight – Joined Up

6 thoughts on “Why We Love Silo Working And What To Do About It

  1. Fantastic stuff, Paul. The phrase ‘working in silo’ has always frustrated me; it suggests that people or teams are doing exactly that, and whilst they might have a shared objective; they are setting themselves out to achieve without any intention of sharing. (This kinda reminds me of those super-bright kids in your class at school who’d arch their shoulder over their exam papers so that nobody else could see!) So yes, silo-workers may have a place but in the social-age we must ensure that the vision, the learning and its benefits are shared (early in the process), to avoid dis-engagement and undo all of the good intention that had been set out to achieve.

    1. Thanks Andy – we certainly need specialists, you’re not going to run a business without them. The trick is how information flows between them and the interactions they have. Bottlenecks result in inefficiency as different teams may be working with different understandings. Your example of the kid in class covering their exam results is spot on – that’s what needs designing out!

  2. Really interesting, Paul. What’s frustrating is it’s another learning point that helps me understand what I’d do differently if I were still running an association. I particularly liked the example from the battlefield – the circumstances though are very urgent necessitating quick action. We rarely feel that urgency in the housing sector and there’s always time for fear to creep in, like “but the Regulator wants us to focus on hitting these KPIs”. I guess it’s a balance to be struck. Good luck with the reorganising and I’ll look forward to reading about the outcomes.

  3. Thanks Paul – I think we all identify with hindsight! What’s been interesting is how asking all 32 service areas to describe their service objective (in 150 words) has uncovered a lot of potential silos. Taking the time to do this has led us to give more intellectual thinking to designing out silos. As you say – the urgency isn’t always there to do this. I’ll be sharing results for sure!

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