“Data are becoming the new raw material of business.” — Craig Mundie, Head of Research and Strategy at Microsoft.
Given the importance of information technology (IT) in the modern business environment, IT terms have inevitably leaked into the common parlance of today’s office. For example, “data silos” occur when incompatible systems lack an interface through which they can share data. Databases become isolated from each other, and it becomes increasingly difficult to collect all the data needed to make effective decisions.
Often this becomes institutionalized. Groups within the organization consider themselves isolated entities, with no need or desire to work together. Some even compete for limited resources. Ultimately, productivity stagnates due to lack of cooperation, cross-fertilization of ideas, and jealous guarding of proprietary data. Some departments or teams essentially became their own little fiefdoms, where one has to go hat-in-hand to the leader to make any progress at all.
Here’s a real-life example of how this works and can go wrong. PetraAquatics, Ltd.¹ is a mid-sized environmental firm located in a large city. A sprightly organization in the 1980s and early 1990s, the various departments worked together to accomplish their goals; for example, the biologists assisted archaeologists in their site surveys, and archaeologists reported to the biologists their sightings of rare plants and animals that the biology team had been hired to count. But in the mid-1990s, the owner—who had driven the mission and vision of the company more than anyone realized—went into semi-retirement and hired a professional CEO/President.
By the late 1990s, the business had contracted bureaucratitis. Administration expanded far faster than the rest of the company. Some leaders began to jealously guard their power and data. As profits dropped, the administrators initiated an unwise series of layoffs mostly targeted at low-paid field workers—those who actually earned the money that paid for the overhead. This caused a downward spiral that ended only when the owner reclaimed the presidency and immediately reorganized. With the new openness he demanded and his mandate to work toward common goals, the organization became profitable again in the early 2000s.
Clearly, in order to survive in a business arena where faster, smarter, and more agile is the name of the game, your team or organization can’t allow resource and data clogs to limit its ability to advance quickly.
Technology vs. Human Nature
If your data has literally piled up in silos behind incompatible systems, per the original IT meaning, then find ways to link those systems or just replace the balky ones; port the old data to the new systems; and ensure they’ll remain compatible well into the future. The cost is overshadowed by the costs of trying to move forward while crippled by lack of data. But what about the silos that result from a human unwillingness to cooperate, such as in PetraAquatics’ case? Here’s how to clear those blockages:
1. Unify from the top down. However distant they may seem, the attitudes pervading a company trickle down from the top. When the leadership maintains efficient control over the mission and vision, everyone wins. You may have no direct access or influence over upper management, but at the very least you can control how your own team thinks and reacts.
2. Encourage a collaborative environment. Reach out to other leaders, opening up your own information to them and urging them to do the same for you. Show them how much you can profit when you remember you’re actually members of the same team, and work together to solve problems and fatten the bottom line. When the business works, everyone benefits.
3. Make “cross-disciplinary” your watchword. Don’t let the narrow constraints of your particular field blind you. If one of the VPs at McDonald’s hadn’t had an open mind when he went out to make a deposit at a drive-through bank, the company might never have pioneered the drive-through restaurant—a multibillion dollar idea adapted from an entirely different type of business. Keep your eyes open for good ideas from any source. At PetraAquatics, the archaeology department also conducted geoarchaeological assessments, applying the principles of geology to archaeology in ways that enriched their reports and earned them kudos from clients. For a while, the archaeology department kept PetraAquatics afloat during an otherwise unprofitable period.
4. Clear the deadwood. As you smash silos and break up fiefdoms, you may have to dismiss, demote, or “laterally promote” the individuals who caused the problems in the first place. At PetraAquatics, the President brought back the profitable field workers and laid off the least productive administrators—including a number of Ph.D.s, and one manager who refused to let others access a government postings database the company depended on to find work.
As Benjamin Franklin once pointed out to his fellow Founding Fathers, “If we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.” The same goes for any modern business. When teams and departments work at cross purposes or simply refuse to work together, the outcome becomes uncertain, damaging the organization’s stability. Rather than allow that to happen, unify yours from the top down, reach out to other groups, consider ideas from outside your field, and allow people who don’t want to hang together an opportunity to find another opportunity.
¹PetraAquatics is a real company, though I’ve changed the name to hide its identity.