Tearing Down Silos

Tearing Down the Silos

Many years ago, I partnered with a hardware vendor that had signs hung all through his company offices.  That sign read “SHOOT THE SNAKE”.  I asked him for his definition of “THE SNAKE”.  He said it was the murmurings of negativity that flow around the office.  It was the whispered attacks on other people and from teams against other teams.  The “SNAKE” is the antithesis of teamwork, my words not his.

I could go into a lengthy discussion about teamwork, but I think you all get it.  You recognize it when it happens, and you criticize it when it doesn’t.  The poster of “Everyone rowing in the same direction” is very fitting but also overused to the point of being cliché.   Consider for a minute the role Silos play in the dynamics of teamwork.  All business disciplines require teamwork.  Being in a Technology Leadership role for so long, I am convinced that IT requires teamwork at a much deeper level than most.  Unfortunately, I have also witnessed internal silos in IT at a much more profound level than most.

My definition of a silo is very simply an imaginary wall build around any person or team of people to keep their talents in and to keep others’ talents out.  I’ve used this example in prior blogs but it bears repeating here.  IT, historically, kept mainframes behind a glass wall.  The term for this was the “Glass House”.  Users could see the mainframe and the IT Staff, but they could not get to us.  Yes, some silo walls are see-through.  I laugh when I hear someone use the term “transparency”.  Just because you can see me, does not mean I am working with you.  IT teams in most organizations work in silos.  Consider the following:

  • The IT Team is normally physically separated from the other departments, geographically at times. They are in a separate building or in an area away from other departments.  Many companies outsource and/or offshore IT support.
  • The IT Team has capabilities and access to information and features no one else has. Mostly, it is for a good reason like the ability to backup, restore and manage data.
  • IT is rarely included in strategic planning, executive decision-making, or external/community activities. (Yeah, I know.  IT folks can be a bit socially awkward)
  • IT people talk in technical jargon and use a lot of TLAs. Oops, sorry, a TLA is a Three Letter Acronym.

I have written at length about assimilating IT in the Business environment and getting the CIO a seat at the Executive table.  What concerns me the most is not the Silo around IT.  What I struggle with daily is the Silos built inside of IT, the ones that prevent IT divisions from collaborating with another IT division.  It is very common for Application Development teams to build a silo around themselves.  After all, they believe they are the most technical division.  They understand databases, operating systems and they can code.  Infrastructure teams build silos around themselves the data center.  They go so far as to prevent other IT team members from entering their “Glass House”, which is no longer glass and is usually hidden.  They own the hardware.  Just listen to them talk about “my server” and “my network”.   My favorite, though, are the silos built around the Helpdesk and Tier 1 and 2 support.  In many cases, the only IT folks the business community know are the helpdesk people.  They are the ones that get out with the business users and solve problems, install software, and deliver new laptops.  They are the “Face” of IT and sadly the lowest paid in most IT organizations.   Yet, the CIO wonders why IT is misunderstood.

So, how do we fix these internal silos?  Said another way, how do we foster an environment of teamwork?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Education – I am convinced that silos are constructed when teams do not understand what other teams do. CIOs need to convene monthly All-Hands meetings.  At these meetings, individuals from each team should make presentations on key projects and emerging technologies.  The CIO needs to mentor the presenters and be the test audience.  The other teams will develop an appreciation for the efforts needed and IT Team members will improve their presentation skills and maybe break out of their shells.
  2. Advancement – I am asked, continually, what it takes to get to the next level of a career. The answer is cross-training.  You can be the best Java coder, but if you do not understand the Infrastructure, the business requirements and the overall corporate mission, there is only so far I can promote you.  You may have to proactively meet with other IT division personnel to learn their craft.  I don’t expect the Tier 1 helpdesk person to learn how to build a website in HTML but understanding what it takes and appreciating the effort needed would be a good start.  Unfortunately, IT has gotten so complicated it is difficult to understand it all.  And it is getting worse.  Technologists work hard within their area of expertise to master their craft.  It is difficult to find the time to reach outside their area.  Find the time.  Unfortunately, I find the same issues with High School athletics.  Kids dedicate their time to excelling in just one sport now to be good enough to compete.  Multi-sport athletes are becoming a thing of the past.
  3. Project Management – Most IT projects are self-managed, which equates to unmanaged. There is no formal Project Management methodology.  Learning to manage projects is another key to advancement.  Project Managers need to plan, schedule meetings, write communications, and motivate other resources to deliver on time.  Wow!  That sounds like being a Director.  Project Managers are also required to understand the big picture and how all the individual IT disciplines interact for projects to be successful.  Now it sounds like a CIO.  Try this: Assign a project manager for all non-trivial projects.  Select new candidates to give everyone a chance to learn and grow.  MENTOR THEM!  Adopt a formal Project Management methodology and enforce it.  Hold PMs accountable.

When everyone raises their involvement and appreciation for everyone else’s contributions, teamwork will improve, and silos will come down.  Silos were built brick by brick.  That is how they need to be dismantled.  You cannot simply blow them up without a lot of collateral damage.  Most importantly, the attitude that silos will not be tolerated is key.  Praise examples of teamwork at each All Hands meeting.  Incent positive behavior.  Make cross-training, project management and teamwork a part of every performance review.  CIOs need to highlight silo-breaking efforts at each Executive Team meeting.  Make IT a model that other departments will want to emulate.

If you have any experiences to share, please do.  I also love to read your anecdotes.  Please click below to comment or to email me.