Leaders at all levels in organisations know the difficulties of achieving truly effective cross-business collaboration. Where boundaries between individuals and teams become too rigid a lack of joined up thinking and working can result – otherwise known as ‘silo working’. Of course, silos can be helpful, such as grouping specialists into learning communities, focusing people on results and providing a map of who does what and where. However, where cooperation and collaboration is needed and there are barriers to achieving this, the cost to the organisation can be very high – a lack of shared learning and innovation, delays in getting work done, unproductive conflict, stress and significant financial costs due to programme failures.
There are many ways in use today to increase collaboration in organisations, yet somehow they don’t always succeed, become sustainable or inform the learning of others who inevitably share the same fate. There are numerous examples in organisations and in the public domain of breakdowns that occur within and between organisations and the cost this can bring about.
On Wednesday 20 April 2011 Sony’s PlayStation Network, with around 77 million users, was hacked into by criminals who stole personal information. A report in The Guardian newspaper on 27 April explained that:
Since Stringer’s appointment in March 2005 he has struggled to break the company out of its “silo” organisation that has prevented coordination between different divisions.
The impact of the security breach on Sony’s share price and reputation are well known and data protection law suits were also filed.
In a different case Chris Patton, Chairman of the BBC Trust, blamed silo working at the BBC as one of the reasons for the editorial crises that have seriously damaged the organisations reputation – a view subsequently confirmed in The Pollard Report (The Andrew Marr Show Interview with Chris Patton, 2012: 6, The Pollard Report, 2012: 39—40, 185).
Key reasons that I explain in my book include:
1. The natural tensions that exist between different personalities. The complexity of people and the differences that exist can be a source of creativity and learning, yet in a difficult and ambiguous business environment the potential for misunderstanding and unproductive conflict is increased. How we respond to people in managing our differences can be distorted by defensive behaviours such as personal control issues, leading to rigidity in relationships between individuals, teams and departments.
2. Problems of identity and purpose. Change challenges identity, the reasons people are working in the organisation, who they are and what they believe in. Without identification at team and organisation levels, identity defaults to the lowest level – the sub-group, clique or individual. On the other hand, too much identification with the ‘home team’ can also get in the way of collaboration. Where people identify too much with the particular space they occupy and boundaries become rigid and impervious then problems can and do occur.
3. The absence of a strategic relationship agenda. The impact of relationships is not always considered in decision-making and other risk areas of the business alongside the task and process elements of business planning and delivery.
4. Patterns of behaviour that repeat in organisations. There are invisible influences in complex and interconnected systems, silo working being one of them, which can become part of the wider culture.
Regarding the solutions, it all depends on the nature of the organisation and the context. There is no ‘one size fits all’. However, there are certain principles that if applied as part of an integrated approach can help people to collaborate for results. These include:
a. Helping individuals to start with themselves. In any relationship we can influence our own beliefs, attitudes and behaviours much more easily than someone else. By taking responsibility for ourselves in a relationship – and increasing our adaptability and flexibility of response – we can change the context for the relationship and improve it. This includes developing self-awareness and working on our own sense of identity and values within the context of the team and organisation operating framework.
b. Developing Open Teams. Having a team identity is crucial for engagement with others, but teams need to be flexible and responsive. Open Teams are proactive in relationship management, keeping in touch with people and events outside of the team, listening to feedback and responding appropriately. They recognise that stagnation can occur over time, regularly take a step back, review how things are working and develop team members.
c. Integrating business and organisation development on an on-going basis. Leaders need to have a keen eye on relationships in their team and with others inside and outside of the organisation. They also need to be able to have a dialogue around relationships with colleagues in the rest of the organisation, particularly for critical outcomes and initiatives. To sustain collaborative working relationships relationship management needs to be a strategic agenda item.
David Willcock (EUR 1977 to 81) is Director of Liberating Potential Ltd. His book Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work is published by Gower. A 35% author discount is available to NBS alumni. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.