Steel SilosA typical metaphor used for university education is “ivory tower”. This brings up the image of several stodgy professors busily researching a subject and not looking to see how it relates to the world around them.  The professors hammering away at their very narrow subject area are sure that their ivory tower will remain safe, even when attacking troops are trying to storm the castle.  Business leadership models have the same sort of metaphor, but use the more modern image of silos.

Like towers, silos store information for a specific purpose.  When upper level management needs that information, they go to the particular silo, release kernels of knowledge to fill the truck and then deliver the information to executive meeting rooms where the information is used as an ingredient for a new product.

When professors stay in ivory towers their research is no longer relevant to the outside world.  When departments stay in silos, their kernels rot.  Information, like the rotten kernels, is still there, but the information is no longer fit for creating a new product.  Both silos and ivory towers represent exclusivity irrelevant to the changing landscape.  As well, silos and ivory towers are built and protected so that a small group or even one person can control what goes on inside and what products are available to the outside.

A university’s approach to solving this problem is to create interdisciplinary studies, commonly called learning communities that contain disciples as different economics, ecology, anthropology and computer sciences.  In other words, a cluster, instead of a tower, that easily moves through different disciplines.  The cluster can change shape as a project evolves and entities inside the cluster can move in and out as needed.  Likewise, management structures are trying to move out of the silos into inter-departmental functional nodes which reconfigure as needs change.  For instance, marketing and data management may be put together to create a channel of communication reporting on the commercial viability of a product, while at the same time data management is working with shipping to see if delivery destinations match identified product markets or if the company is supplying product markets in a timely manner.

A hallmark of silos and ivory towers is keeping the communication inside the building going up and down within a vertical structure.  Functional nodes, though, use wide-spreading horizontal communication instead of narrow vertical communication.

When communicating vertically, leadership only needs to consider the silo’s goal.  When communicating horizontally, leadership needs to consider two factors: 1) the node’s goal and 2) how the node communicates with other nodes.

Collaborative cross-silo problem solving meets both of these criteria.   A leader can define a goal with intent, meaning that the skills and knowledge needed to solve the problem require horizontal communication.  For instance, a goal as simple as designing a chair usually first begins in R&D and then passes through various departments such as marketing and purchasing.  This takes time because each department must approve it before the chair goes forward to a different stage of bringing it to market.  Think of the time it would save by creating a “node” or “learning community” that incorporates representatives from each stage of the process, R&D, product procurement, marketing, accounting and shipping.  After the initial brainstorm, specific needs are assigned to different members of the node.  Then, instead of the final product making it to the top of each silo before it is signed off, the product comes back to the node.  And, it is the node that determines when the product is viable for market.

It is easily argued that upper management represents different departments, so when upper management signs off on project completion, it is multiple departments that have produced the project.  After all, representatives from each “silo” agree.  Here is the other aspect to silos.  They are vertical in the sense of the focus of a particular department; they are also vertical in employee level.  Upper level management can be just as isolated from team leaders as R&D is from accounting.  Developing projects with the intent of cross-collaboration between departments also means developing them with the intent of cross-collaboration between employee levels.  Working this way, upper management rubs elbows with all levels of employees, breaking down the tower/silo walls that inhibit meaningful conversations.

Think of the frustration you felt in university when your core classes seemed to be completely irrelevant to your field of study.  How refreshing it would have been if your professors clearly linked how core classes enrich your field of study.  Business and academics want to classify themselves as from each other.  However some structures remain the same – ivory towers that separate knowledge from relativity and silos that separate usefulness from rot.