Breaking down silos

I got a grumpy tweet last week, during the Thursday #ESNChat session, for using the term “breaking down the silos”. I felt bad, until then I’d been agreeing with much of what Greg had been saying.

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Yes, I really said that.

The tweeter suggested I read his blog post which explains why he hates the term so much.

So I did.

I agree with the first part of definition of a silo he gives;

According to, a silo is “a structure, typically cylindrical, in which fodder or forage is kept”.

But I’m not convinced by the second part

In the business context, a silo generally represents a wall or boundary put up by an organization to keep them focused on accomplishing their goals and keeping outsiders from interfering with progress.

In my experience silos form in large companies to support the hierarchical structure of the company. It rests on an old model of thinking about work; that managers know what needs to be done and are responsible for directing all those under their responsibility to complete that work.

For me silos are are an outcome of an overly hierarchical company culture, one where people are unwilling to share knowledge, solve problems together or co-operate in any way.  The business directory defines silo mentality as;

a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Visible signs that your organisation is in silos;

  • people talk about “us” and “them” meaning different departments within your company
  • you need agreement from management of two departments to get co-operation from another department
  • you need permission from a manager to approach someone in another department
  • departments in your company store their information online in team sites or shared drives that are only accessible for department members
  • you do have lunch with colleagues, but only ever from your own department
  • your personnel directory is searchable by name, or department, but not by expertise
  • when you look for specialist expertise, for example a Spanish-speaking tax expert with experience in Latin America, you start by emailing someone who speaks Spanish


Greg, in his blog post, pointed to some good reasons for building silos within a company; allowing people to focus on the work at hand, and legal or regulatory reasons.

Yes there is a need to focus on the work, and that may mean that a project team shuts itself off from the organisation in some way. Yes in regulated industries there may be a need to put boundaries between certain parts of the organisation; the term used for this in banking in Chinese walls. In agencies temporary boundaries are often put in place around a project to prevent sharing of client information.

In general I wouldn’t consider anything temporary as a silo; just as you don’t move a grain silo easily, silos within companies take time to be established. I agree that there are regulatory boundaries to be considered, and while I’m probably guilty of understating those in my enthusiasm for improving knowledge sharing across a company, I’m certainly not thinking of them when I call for us to “break down the silos”.

I watched a TED video that talked about what might be one of the greatest silo breakdowns ever, and it comes from the US military. General Stanley McChrystal states;

The fact that I know something has zero value if I’m not the person who can actually make something better because of it.

He explains that it’s almost impossible to know who is the best person to use each piece of information, and that the army therefore moved from a “tell only who needs to know” to “we need to tell, and tell them as quickly as we can“.

It’s this philosophical shift I am referring to when I talk about breaking down the silos. In some companies the need is urgent, but I’m going to stop using the term, not in deference to Greg, but because it’s too urgent; from now on the term is “tearing down the silos”.


4 thoughts on “Breaking down silos

  1. Great perspective on silos Louise. My objection to the term “breaking down silos” isn’t because I think silos are a fantastic construct of the future. Indeed, I hate them just as much as most people. They inhibit new behaviors more than anything else. It is the key construct for “Command and Control”. My blog was specifically written because “breaking down silos” is “jargon” and that people often try to align around this without really understanding or enabling others to understand what they really are trying to accomplish. These discussions are complex and require discussion and debate, not exchange of 140character snippets.

    At the end of the day, we are talking about improving organizational communications as a facility for eliminating these silos. I’d encourage you to focus on clarity and avoid jargon no matter what message you are trying to convey to your stakeholders. Much of my blog at is focused around that. I hope that it provides clarity and a perspective that enables success.

  2. Thanks Greg, it’s the 140 character limit that was, in part, responsible for my lapse into jargon. I think we agree that silos need to go when they are not serving a purpose. The difference is that when an internal barrier in a company serves a purpose I don’t call it a silo; I use a different word.

    I also agree with you on the communication focus, in fact I’ve written about business cliches for a long time, the posts are collected under this tage, they go back more than five years.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. Indeed, it’s hard to communicate fully in 140 characters. Words have meaning. The trouble is that they may not mean the same thing to the speaker and the reader/hearer. I’m not a big fan of jargon, either, but I’m with you, Louise, on the common use of the term. In the context of enterprise social networking, overcoming the issue of unhealthy barriers to communication, efficiency and productivity is (in my opinion) what most mean when they use the term “breaking down silos.” (At least it’s what I think of. Maybe I’m just projecting my definition on others.) If it’s safe to assume most mean that or something very close to it, then I have no issue with using the term, especially when character space in a tool like Twitter limits us.

  4. Thanks Jeff, I too assume that it’s the unhealthy barriers to communication that people mean by “breaking down the silos”. But it’s always good to have one’s assumptions challenged!

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