Silos exist in many companies and they are unhealthy for company success. One reason businesses adopted collaboration technology was to keep silos from forming or hopefully breakdown these silos if they did exist. Unfortunately, the reality is these technologies are just making the problem worse. It’s easy to see why. Collaboration technologies are themselves silos. You need to adopt integrated collaboration to get back on track.
Organizational silos are when groups, usually work teams or departments, have stronger loyalty to their group than to the organization as a whole. There is no benefit to having a siloed organization. Siloes create distrust and poor performance. Their cause is common enough, an unfortunate artifact of the limited resources businesses often deal with and the competitive nature of people.
All businesses have limited resources that need to be allocated. Businesses also have a workforce that wants to do well and develop their careers. These normal competitive dynamics can get overheated and lead to silos forming. Silos are pernicious, though. Once they are established they are hard to eradicate.
Silos manifest in typical ways, like groups of affiliated employees not wanting to share information with other groups, calling out or blaming other departments for failures, or working whatever levers are at their disposal to get the largest piece of the resource pie. A common cause of organizational silos happens when a group doesn’t understand how they fit into the overall strategy or feel other groups don’t understand the value they deliver. These feelings of vulnerability can force these groups to turn inwards.
This is ultimately a failure of leadership. In the case above that could be unintentional. There are plenty of examples where leadership’s actions directly cause silos. Asking departments to submit plans to achieve goals for the upcoming year reinforces a siloed mindset from the start. They may even have groups or departments compete for resources in a zero-sum game. These approaches create the conditions for silos to flourish.
Getting back to the situation when groups don’t know how they fit into the overall strategy. This is a particular issue caused by the lack of communication of a company’s strategy. When teams and departments lose sight of how the company plans to succeed they will often instead focus on departmental goals.
Most companies work hard to foster collaboration and open communication, so silos don’t form. This willingness has helped collaboration technology emerge as a large and growing software segment. Let’s take a look at how this has developed and the ramifications that have happened.
Persistent chat, in tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, is the most ubiquitous collaboration technology feature. When Slack first came out at the end of 2013 it was novel, but its utility was easy to see. Slack has grown incredibly fast and has now gone mainstream, along with Microsoft teams. Note: Salesforce.com announced it was acquiring Slack at the end of 2020.
Many end-user application vendors saw the benefit of connecting the quick conversations happening in persistent chat tools with the events happening in their applications. Project management solutions like Asana, Wrike, and Trello all have chat functionality embedded now. As do doc collaboration tools like Google Workspace and O365.
Now almost every enterprise application — from customer resource management (CRM) to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems; from enterprise content management (ECM) to business intelligence (BI) platforms — have incorporated basic social collaboration features into their user experiences. This makes sense because it does address the challenges of coordinating work and making decisions in context with the things being discussed.
The hope users and company management have with the introduction of collaboration technology like project management, task management, or persistent chat software is to foster collaboration and coordination of efforts. A secondary goal is to break down siloes if they exist. Both of these values are how these vendors position their technology.
Proliferation of collaboration
The problem now is employees have too many places where they can post a comment or carry on a conversation. This has resulted in an additional burden on users to figure out in which tool they should conduct their conversations and keeping track of the different conversations across all the applications in use. How many red dots, indicating new activity, in your mobile and desktop apps are you conditioned to respond to?
The cause is obvious. All of this collaboration software are point solutions that create siloes themselves. You have file sharing apps, project management apps, task management apps, and the ability to comment in even more applications. This technical siloing is just as harmful as human-centered silos.
This doesn’t just happen across applications. It happens within applications. Take for instance project management applications. The project manager creates a new project and invites the team. No one outside that team has a clue what’s going on inside that project. With everyone in their respective black boxes not seeing the bigger picture, even within the same applications, silos are proliferating.
The term digital divide describes the chasm between those with technology and those without. We can see that point solutions are creating a new kind of digital divide. Ironically, it’s the proliferation of collaborative applications with people who work for the same company creating this new divide. Silos are so pernicious that it should drive companies to bold action to beat it back.
The solution is to adopt integrated collaboration. This is where all of these point solutions are actually one holistic application. Although it seems like Slack is close enough, it’s not the answer. Slack’s integration capabilities are impressive, but what they are doing is bringing in events and alerts from other applications where users can be notified. It’s great for integrating notifications, but not for putting collaboration into context. In most cases, users still need to jump back into the source application to do their work and get back in “context”.
A holistic approach to collaboration means combining the critical applications employees use every day to conduct business. These core applications are project management, task management, and file sharing, wrapped with persistent chat functionality. On top of that, you also need to include the goals of the organization with linkages between the projects and tasks being worked on with those goals.
In this way, everyone will understand their role in the overall strategy of the company while they are doing their individual work. When an employee, team, and department can see how their tasks or actions roll up to the big-picture goals you can be assured they will have confidence in their role and purpose in the company.
When users can see other projects and how those projects fit into the big picture there will be a lot less blind ambition at empire-building. Silo-killing isn’t easy once it takes hold, but don’t be fooled into thinking that heavy usage of collaboration technology is the answer. It’s more likely exacerbating the problem. In this winner-take-all economy, it’s worth taking bold action.