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Learning to Share is Hard: Breaking Down Organizational Silos

09/22/2020

Working at both the Nebraska Department of Transportation and Infotech at different times over the last 35 years has enabled me to develop a perspective that encompasses both the industry’s government and private sectors. One of the most significant issues I still see on either side of this industry is the development of silos. Silos come in various sizes, shapes, and types. It would be hard to define each one in this article, but they all most likely fall under the umbrella term: organizational silo.

My Nebraska background leads me to believe that silos are a good thing. On a farm or ranch, they keep things that should be separated away from each other. But in an organization, it describes the separation of different types of employees or data, often defined by the department in which they exist. This separation makes it increasingly difficult to maintain a collaborative workflow across those departments. Unlike the farm example, an organizational culture that allows or encourages silos will see a breakdown of information sharing and the inefficiencies that accompany it. If not recognized and mitigated, it can potentially cause serious consequences, including territorial disputes between departments, communication breakdowns, and revenue loss.

The most damaging instance of silo behavior in recent times was the failure of governments, bankers, and regulators to spot the emerging financial crisis of 2008. While that is across a broader industry, it is easy to point to that example and its impact. A personal example I have is with the purchasing of software at an organization where I worked. I recall the need for project scheduling software to be researched for purchase. The project scheduling people tasked with this research did not include other departments in their research. They ended up buying software with a back-end database that did not “talk” to any other applications the organization already had. By definition, they purchased a “silo” that only met their immediate needs. I think this type of technology silo is one of the most common subsets of the larger organizational type. It is the byproduct of the bigger issue.

So, you came this far with me, and you are probably wondering, “where are we going with this topic?” Removing silos and working across organizational boundaries is not a new way of thinking. Forward-thinking companies do many things in their culture and processes to break down the isolation mentality. At Infotech, we collaborate across divisions, departments, and teams to mitigate communication barriers. For example, we are fully invested in using “hackathons” to bring together staff from across the company to do collective problem-solving. We also deliberately have cross-product and cross-division meetings regularly. My business area is an example of the intersection of software analysis, design, implementation, and support. It is an ecosystem that promotes the sharing of knowledge both internally and externally with other areas. That all works great for us, but the real question is, “How can we help you?”

At Infotech, we have had a positive impact on our customers by breaking down their information-sharing barriers. We help them discover where the silos exist and provide solutions using communication, collaboration, software technology, and software implementation strategies. While we understand we might not be able to fully break down all barriers our customers have created over time, we can demonstrate that if their knowledge and data are “un-siloed,” they can be connected in ways that strengthen the organization. Eliminating silos also results in the reduction of duplicate data entry and helps mitigate data inconsistencies. Win-Win, right?

Of course, it is easy to get a comprehensive view of an organization and its opportunities for greater connection from our viewpoint. Imagine the relationship between two departments in your organization. Let’s use a Department of Transportation as an example since we work with many DOTs in this area. Let’s pretend the two departments often work together – Construction and Finance, for example. Each department is in a silo. Each department has ideas for improving their processes. But because of the historical buildup of organizational siloes, they do not always appreciate each other’s roles and responsibilities within the organization, nor do they agree on how to streamline collaboration between the departments. That is where we come in.

Infotech has the opportunity to act as an honest broker between organizational departments. We understand the individual value of each silo, but we also see the bigger collaborative picture. When we work with a DOT, we do not go in with a plan to fix problems. The plan is developed as we learn more about your organizational silos – how can we make them part of the solution? When we leave, we have failed if things quickly fall back to the way they were before. By ensuring your organization is part of the solution, we leave behind the roadmap for collaboration. Organizational ownership from the top-down is essential to continued success. Our goal is to leave agencies with the tools to instigate change that we may not have even considered.

We are currently working with internal and external partners to develop a host of agency services that will assist with implementation, collaboration, training, process, and more. While those services are still evolving, we are always open to conversations about how we can help your organization eliminate data silos. Our goal is to help our customers define and leverage a unified vision, encouraging everyone to prioritize collaboration across the organization, increasing the overall efficiency of operations and productivity. After all, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle.


Authors

Jim Ferguson
Director of AASHTOWare Products Analysis and Support
Jim is a firm believer in collaborative and mindful communication between co-workers, clients, and customers to create quality deliverables. With over 35 years in both public and private sectors, Jim has experience in requirements analysis, software development, resource management, strategic implementation, and company collaboration efforts. Jim holds a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Nebraska. While this degree may not seem to fit where Jim is today, it serves as a reminder that hard work and passion for that work determines your path, not a piece of paper.
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