An email recently arrived in my inbox pointing to an article that argued,
"Functional, operational and professional silos and mental ‘walls’ need to be demolished."
This is a perennial cry. Managers. consultants, and others have complained for years about this so-called "silo mentality". Yet still it persists. Why might that be?
To begin with, the tendency for people to act in this way is designed-in during formal organizationsal design projects. People are brought together to achieve things that they couldn't achieve alone. And, to enable them to do so, they are divided up (or divide themselves up) into separate divisions, departments, teams, roles, etc. This requires them both to strive to excel in terms of their specialist role contributions and, at the same time, to collaborate for 'the greater good' - however this might be constructed.
More significantly, though, 'silo behaviour' is a natural dynamic of the complex social process of everyday interaction. People seek to go on together in the midst of competing demands, needs and expectations. And they aim to do this in ways that preserve their sense of identity and self-worth; sustain their important relationships; enable them to be seen as competent in the eyes of significant others; and so on.
So 'silo behaviour' is one expression of the normal politics of everyday organizational life.
Central to this are the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. The tendency for people to form themselves into in-groups and out-groups is first seeded by the formal discussions on structure (e.g. arguments about why a particular role and/or responsibility sits here and not there; efforts to clarify who is and isn't "Us"; and so on). The resulting polarization then tends to be reinforced through people’s formal day-to-day interactions.
At the same time, of course, people interact informally both within and across their formal groupings. And it’s also important to recognize that many of the demands, needs and expectations that people seek to reconcile though their ongoing interactions arise from relationships ‘external’ to the formally established boundaries of the organization (such as family and friends, outside interests,professional groupings, and so on). Conversations do not respect boundaries!
This means that the interactions through which organization emerges inevitably reflect different (and potentially competing) interests, ideologies, identities, intentions, and so on. And so collaboration and conflict are constantly in play. Intertwined and indivisible.
The challenge is not, therefore, to seek to get rid of silos - performance depends on them. But rather to become aware of, and work with, the unavoidable paradox of conflict and collaboration that is continually at play in all ‘organizations’ – whatever formal structures, systems and processes might be put in place.