Reflections on #realwplearn chat: Breaking Down Silos

One of my favorite learning activities is participating in the weekly twitter chat called #lrnchat. Participating in this chat and writing reflective blog posts is an extremely valuable learning experience for me. A collection of these reflective posts can be found here.

This past week marked the return of #realwplearn, a chat dedicated to Real Workplace Learning, and part of an initiative from Jane Hart (@c4lpt) and Jane Bozarth (@janebozarth). The Real Workplace Learning blog is a place to share examples of where REAL workplace happens: through social, informal, and often serendipitous happenings.

The topic of this month’s #realwplearn chat session was “Breaking Down Silos”.

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group.

Q1 Why do organizations insist on building silos even when information is not proprietary or secret?
Q2 When have you learned something from a colleague who was NOT a member of your own organization?
Q3 Literature tells us employees feel most info should be shared as a public good. How can we overcome the “build a silo” mindset?
Q4 How do we help organizations use, for instance, Facebook, rather than build their own inferior version of Facebook? provides this definition of the word ‘Silo’:
1. a structure, typically cylindrical, in which fodder or forage is kept.
2. a pit or underground space for storing grain, green feeds, etc.
3. Military . an underground installation constructed of concrete and steel, designed to house a ballistic missile and the equipment for firing it.

I would add a fourth definition to the list: A metaphorical structure in which information is kept.  Most organizations today have silos. These silos are not (usually) physical structures, but more a statement of a culture in an organization regarding the sharing of information.  In many organizations, information does not freely flow; it instead only travels via selected paths, and often, within selected loops.  This creates numerous challenges.  It is in this context that #realwplearn discussed silos within organizations.

Organizational silos are born from the need to control.  It breeds from a perversion of the mindset of ‘knowledge is power’.  Knowledge IS power, but like most forms of energy, it is only powerful if used effectively.  Organizational knowledge and skills is tremendously powerful; individual and compartmentalized knowledge and skills within an organization creates at best limits, and at worst, risks.

Most learning and performance professionals have likely encountered one of the most common risks associated with organizational silos already.  It starts with building a solution to address a performance issue.  The team or individual spends time and resources designing and developing a solution to the performance problem, only to discover that a similar resource already existed in another area of the organization.  Had information been more readily shared within that scenario, not only would a solution have been delivered to the need much quicker, but resources would not have been wasted developing something that already existed.  This is an all-to-common story.

So why do organizations build these silos? Well, first we must realize that organizations don’t do anything – people do.  It’s individuals that create silos.  Unfortunately, I think much of it is ingrained in us during our youth.

Consider the 12+ years of schooling you participated in. Chances are, in addition to your actual course-specific knowledge, you also learned a few things about information sharing.  Specifically, you learned NOT to share information. Not only was it not encouraged, but in the case of testing, it was banned. If my neighbor asked me if I knew the answer to a question, I was forbidden from answering.

I did not have my first group project until my college years, and I recall spending most of my efforts on making sure the other students didn’t ‘screw up my grade’ than on any collaborative exercise. I recall many of them requiring much more effort than a similar individual project.  While I now understand how group learning can be more effective and natural, my conditioning made it feel completely unnatural.

In organizational settings that scenario continues, just on a much larger scale.  Information is still power, and if I have information that others in the organization do not, it gives me the impression of being in a position of power.  My handling of that knowledge is basically the same as it was during a school group project example.  The only difference is that what was called “don’t screw up my grade” in school is usually just called “C-Y-A” in the workplace.

It’s unfortunate that anyone would try to limit the flow of information and knowledge, especially in this time where there are so many tools that make sharing information easier.  This point was really driven home during the chat when the group was asked “When have you learned something from a colleague who was NOT a member of your own organization?”.  The answer to that was almost universal: All the time.

So if we learn from people outside our organization (or department) all the time, what can we do to break down the silos that restrict the flow of information?

This isn’t a question of technology.  The question of silos ultimately comes down to one of culture, and can be defined by how you ask the top most question about information sharing. Are you asking if you should leave the door open, or are you asking if you should open the door? The latter reflects a silo mentality.  If you want to break down silos, you’ve got to start by leaving doors open, both metaphorically and literally.

At the same time you also need to build and reinforce the skill of a silo-free organization: Collaboration.  Collaboration by it’s very definition requires the breaking down of walls between participants.  If organizations can get workers to collaborate more, the benefits of the collaboration would be the best way to encourage more sharing.  From this perspective, you don’t attack the silo itself; you get the contents of the silo moving around so much that the silo ‘walls’ can no longer contain what is inside.

The best place to start with any change initiative is with a mirror, and learning and performance professionals need to check their own backyards before criticizing the silos present in other areas.  In many ways, the learning and performance field has built itself into the very definition of a silo.  Consider a few points…

  • You know you’ve said this… “No one here is aware of how much effort goes into the building of a learning program.”
  • We provide metrics like ‘Reaction’, ‘Learning’, and ‘ROI’. These terms only matter to L&D; the organization cares about what workers actually DO.
  • We operate in a vacuum. In most cases, work is interrupted so that workers can participate in a learning program.

If we’re going to discuss breaking down silos, we should start with our own.

One point of clarity – I’m not saying that silos are ‘evil’ and are never appropriate.  In cases where information is provelidged or confidential, proper controls must be put in place in order to maintain the required levels of privacy. It’s one of the few times I will allow myself to use the words ‘control’ and information’ in the same sentence.  However, that’s specific to an isolated situation, and not representative of the overall culture.  It goes back to the question I posed earlier; confidential in an open environment means you close a door that was open, and you open it back up once the confidential discussion has taken place.

Here are a two additional resources that were shared during that chat that dig deeper into the discussion.

Jane Bozarth shared this table of knowledge strategies & key characteristics from Wasko & Faraj that very effectively shows the differences between a silo-mentality (knowledge embedded in people) as compared to a more open silo-free environment (knowledge embedded in people).

For additional thoughts on silos in education, check out this excellent TEDx talk from Dan Pontefract entitled Mr. Classroomachev: Tear Down This Wall.

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