How Do You Break Down Silos in the Workplace?

Date: Apr 25, 2014 4:55:28 PM

Hint: It Involves Collaborative Learning & Inclusive Communication

If you want to break down silos in the workplace, consider creating a culture of collaborative learning and inclusive communication. OK, say what? Yeah, we're not big fans of jargon, either. So let's talk about this in real language that everyone can understand.

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First, a Little Bit of History: The Origins of the Silo Mentality

In 1988, Phil Ensor coined the phrase "functional silo syndrome." Ensor worked in organizational development and employee relations for Goodyear Tire & Rubber at the time. The story goes like this: as Ensor contemplated the issues his company faced, he remembered the grain silos of his youth in rural Illinois. He saw the silos as an apt metaphor for what he was seeing on an organizational level: silos represented a "top-down" mentality, where a few higher-ups were perched at the top and everything, including communication, moved from these higher-ups on down. Someone at the bottom of the silo had little incentive to speak up with ideas, feedback, or constructive criticism. In fact, they'd been conditioned not to.

Even worse was that every department in the organization had its own distinct, separate silo. Picture that rural Illinois landscape dotted with quiet, lonely, standalone silos and nothing else. Yes, it paints a bleak picture indeed.

The results, as you can imagine, were not good. The silo would function, but that was all. There was no room for movement or growth. The model couldn't support collaborative learning or inclusive communication where everyone is invited to share his or her expertise and opinions. Why? Well, a silo, by design, is a sturdy, vertical structure that relies on the unchanging nature of each lower rung. The items we mentioned above—collaborative learning and inclusive communication—are fluid. Both are dynamic, ongoing processes that are not "built" to support a vertical structure that moves from the top down. No, these processes move constantly in all directions.

Breaking Down Silos: Where's Shrek?

We like to picture Shrek, that lovable ogre from Disney, stomping on all those annoying, ineffective silos. Hey, it works for us! It also reveals an effective strategy for breaking down silos by "flattening" organizations.

The best way to explain the concept of a flat organization is by giving you a real-life example: Facebook.

Back in 2009, one Facebook designer described its Palo Alto offices like this: "Our open floor plan matches our relatively flat structure as an organization. We believe good ideas can come from everywhere. Unlike most companies, we don't have offices or cubicles. Instead, people and teams are seated close together so they can collaborate easily. All of the executives are seated in central areas where they are accessible to all employees." (The open floor plan and "flat" model followed Facebook to its new headquarters in Menlo Park in 2012.)

No matter how you feel about the addictive social network, it would be hard to argue with Facebook's success. At Fanhub, we believe a large part of Facebook's success has to do with the fact it embraces those two important silo-busters: collaborative learning and inclusive communication.

But what is it about these two things that work so well at crushing the unproductive silo mentality? Let's drill down even further.

How Collaborative Learning & Inclusive Communication Flatten Silos—For Good
  • Everyone becomes invested in outcomes. When you give everyone the opportunity to contribute, no matter what their role is in the company, they're much more likely to become invested in the outcomes (as in they'll want positive outcomes and will work harder to make sure these outcomes turn into reality).

  • Expertise and knowledge are seen as shareable assets rather than something to be hoarded or "siloed" away. People in "flat" organizations celebrate knowledge and expertise instead of treating them like scarce commodities that need protection from the masses.

  • Everyone has something to contribute, and everyone can learn from someone else. The basic tenet of collaborative learning is that each person has knowledge and expertise he or she can share, and each person has knowledge and expertise that he/she can learn from someone else.

  • The proverbial "same page" becomes a real thing that people welcome. Keeping everyone in an organization on the same page might not seem forward thinking—after all, that "same page" can get pretty boring, right? Well, only if no ever one turns the page. Successful organizations like Facebook are constantly turning the page, writing new chapters and new books. The thing is Facebook makes sure it keeps everyone in the loop as it writes new pages.

  • An egalitarian environment forms, one that encourages everyone to have a voice. Dismantling physical barriers (like closed office doors) or invisible ones (e.g. "people in sales should never mix with people in marketing") supports the notion that no one person deserves to be perched at the top of that silo—everyone has something to offer. (To wit: Mark Zuckerberg doesn't have an office.)

What Can You Do to Break Down Silos in Your Own Organization?

Share this article. :) Seriously, do it. People who've been living in Silo Ville their whole working lives will need time to adjust their thinking. Sharing articles like this one will help them start. From there, begin doing little things that foster a more inclusive, collaborative environment. Here are some quick-hitting ideas:

  • Make sure you have a "team" or "all employee" email address or a centralized bulletin board and use it at least once a week to highlight positive company news. Use it to share awesome things that happened in the office and to give a shout out to people who did something fabulous. Over time, you should give shout outs to everyone, from the receptionist who has such a nice way of greeting clients on the phone to the intern who worked the weekend on an important project to the VP of sales who closed a huge sale. (Psst. Fanhub has a Fanwall baked right into the product, making it super easy to keep everyone up to speed on the latest and greatest happenings in your office.)

  • If you don't already have a social committee in place, create one. Task this committee with creating a fun and social event for the office to participate in every month. The goal? To get different people in different departments hanging out and talking with one another. Remember, good ideas can happen anywhere and from anyone, including the ice cream social you hold on Wednesday afternoon.

  • Invest in collaborative systems. OK, you might see where this is going: Fanhub is a collaborative CRM that brings everyone in your organization—including your customers—together in one nifty and nimble portal. Not only does it do all the things you'd want a CRM to do, like track customers through the sales cycle, but it also makes it super easy for everyone in your organization to share and comment on ideas. Fanhub provides a safe, secure, cloud-based location that people can access from anywhere at any time and on any device that's connected to the Internet.

There are many ways to break down silos, but these can get any organization off to a great start. Here's to flattening silos forever!

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