The worst moment of working in a silo is realizing that you’re working in a silo.
At my first job, I remember meticulously combing through a very specific report draft. I spent hours making edits and updating charts only to realize later in the week that it was all for naught. I had been working in an outdated version that hadn’t yet been updated on the department’s drive.
I’m not alone in experiencing this kind of frustration. It turns out that teams lose as many as 20 hours per month due to informational silos. The problem with silos has only increased as workplaces have switched between in-office, remote, and hybrid models in recent years. Unsurprisingly, it’s even easier to get lost in silos when you’re not working in the same physical space as your colleagues.
Let’s start with what we mean when we say informational silos. Put simply, informational silos occur when teams within an organization don’t share information and processes with one another. Silos usually start small and balloon as organizations grow, inhibiting collaboration.
So why do silos form in organizations?
Causes of silos
Almost all organizations have silos, and they’re usually unintentional. There’s no one reason why silos form, but a few common reasons for this lack of transparency include:
When groups within organizations have different (or worse, competing) priorities, information and processes don’t flow smoothly. Naturally, every team has its own goals, but a transparent company culture should help the team align priorities across groups.
Inertia is a powerful force. Organizations often encounter difficulties when entrenched processes need to pivot to accommodate changes.
Large organizations often have a complex web of relationships between various groups. Information and processes might not flow easily because of personalities in the workplace.
Geography and culture
Teams are increasingly distributed across the world and made up of individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds. Differing time zones, language competency, and other factors can contribute to siloed workplaces.
Lack of psychological safety
Trust is an essential component in how to collaborate effectively with peers. When teams feel like they can bring risky ideas to the table and experiment with the support of their team, innovation flourishes. When that isn’t the case, communication breaks down, and silos can occur.
The right technologies and processes can make all the difference in terms of transparency. Using the wrong systems can introduce unnecessary friction for sharing information and working collaboratively.
Costs of silos
Unfortunately, silos don’t just waste time. The silo effect in organizations can cause major issues.
They reduce morale and performance. In fact, 86% of leaders say that a lack of peer collaboration has led to workplace failures. Silos often lead to unnecessary work and a lack of adaptability. They impact customers, too! According to Aberdeen, 15% of a siloed call center agent's time is spent trying to get information to serve customers. When was the last time you enjoyed waiting in a customer service line?
Identifying silos on your own team
Some silos are glaring. For the rest, you’ll need to do some investigation. To help you understand where communication and collaboration are breaking down, consider surveys and interviews.
There are a few types of surveys that can help you better understand informational silos across teams. First, consider using an employee engagement survey. This type of survey will help you identify which employees feel most connected to their team and company, as well as which employees feel most isolated.
Similarly, you can craft a survey with questions specifically around communication and collaboration to pinpoint issues. Another type of helpful survey is the pulse survey. Pulse surveys are sent on a frequent, regular basis and often identify silo issues before they start to cause problems.
In addition to surveys, consider conducting exit interviews and stay interviews with employees. Exit interviews should illuminate reasons why employees are leaving and what part of turnover is caused by informational silos. On the other hand, stay interviews are discussions with employees who have been with the company for a significant period of time and can illuminate where peer collaboration is succeeding.
Strategies for breaking down silos and introducing effective collaboration
Once you've identified where your team's informational silos are, it’s time to start breaking down those silos and replacing them with a foundation of transparency. Here are a few strategies that can help you improve communication and collaboration across your team.
Align goals and values
Getting different groups to work together effectively starts with ensuring that everyone is on the same page in terms of the company's goals and values. This begins with leadership. Make sure that everyone understands the company's mission and knows how their work fits into the bigger picture.
From there, identify individual teams goals, and put them into the context of the company’s missions as well as the goals of other teams. Reiterate these goals and values regularly, whether it’s during all-hands meetings.
Err on the side of overcommunication
It's surprisingly challenging to actually overcommunicate in a business setting, especially when it’s done asynchronously. It’s far more common for people to feel like they're being left out of the loop.
If you're worried about overwhelming your team with too much information, consider if you’re providing a clear and concise message, and then provide opportunities for folks to learn more in a system that works for everyone.
A good rule of thumb is to communicate more, not less. When in doubt, err on the side of overcommunication. Your team will thank you for it in the long run.
Encourage experimentation through sharing
Trying something new can be scary, especially if it’s something that could potentially fail. That said, innovative teams need to feel comfortable taking risks.
One way to encourage experimentation is to create an environment where teams can share their experiments with each other, whether it’s a physical space like a lab or workshop, or a digital space like a blog or intranet site. By experimenting in a transparent way, teams can learn from each other's successes and failures, and feel more comfortable taking future risks knowing that they have a support system to fall back on.
Encourage team-building activities
Creating positive working relationships is essential for effective collaboration. Consider hosting team-building events that help employees get to know each other better and foster a sense of camaraderie.
There are many different types of team-building activities to choose from, from group cooking classes to scavenger hunts and volunteering. The key is to find activities that everyone will enjoy and that will help them see each other in a different light.
Make team information accessible
It's not enough to encourage a culture where people want to share information—you also need to give them the right tools. Make it easy for teams to find and share information with each other.
Often, this means setting up a centralized knowledge base like Guru to make sure information is easy to use. It means creating an accessible information sharing environment for users to both access and contribute.
Informational silos are absolutely a common problem in workplaces, but successful teams are able to face them with proactive strategies and improve team collaboration.
By taking the time to identify where silos exist on your team, and introducing effective strategies to your team, you’ll improve performance, morale, and more across your team.