Don't Let Silos Stand in the Way

Author Mario Moussa wants you to consider how silos in your workplace hurt business.

By Adrienne Fox May 1, 2010
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0510cover.gifMario Moussa, a Philadelphia-based consultant and academic director of the Wharton School of Executive Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has long been interested in workplace silos. His interest grew after he conducted research while co-authoring The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas (Penguin Group, 2007) with G. Richard Shell. Moussa will lead an Executive Education Program on silo busting June 26-27 during the Society for Human Resource Management 62nd Annual Conference & Exposition in San Diego. He is now writing a book, Stalking Mr. Hyde: Why It Is So Hard to Get Things Done, and offers some insight into his work.

What are silos?
Silos are psychological and physical barriers that separate people, business units or locations and prevent people from collaborating with one another. Silos exist within us and our workspaces. As humans, we are self-interested. It’s not malicious; we were built to focus on ourselves.

Geography and organizational design can create physical silos that impede information flow. It’s hard to learn what someone is doing if they work in another building or another country. But even in small companies, office doors create silos. If I don’t see you or interact with you daily, I won’t think of you.

How are silos detrimental to organizations?
Companies miss out on opportunities and solutions. Work is done more slowly and less creatively. People are less likely to be creative when working with people who think like them—and likely to fall into groupthink.

How do you know whether your organization is affected by silos?
One sign is redundancy. For example, you might hear that another unit has a dedicated sales group exactly like yours.

Another red flag: If you have a hard time reaching people in other parts of the company who have knowledge you need. Someone must have the knowledge, but you don’t know who does—or even how to find out. This tells you people are not sharing information or an information sharing system is not in place.

In what ways—informal and formal—can HR professionals glean this information?
If you hear clients complain or if market share is declining, start thinking of ways silos may be an issue. Think of yourself as an internal consultant; check with clients and ask questions about silos.

Employee surveys can also reveal silos: Ask, “Do people outside of my department understand what I do?” If the answer is overwhelmingly “no,” then you have a silo problem.

What is it about human nature that contributes to the construction of silos?
After a big snowstorm in February, I was walking around Philadelphia with my three teenagers. As we were looking at a car crushed by half a tree, the other half of the tree fell on me. Two children ran off to get help while my 15-year-old son screamed, “I could have been killed!” Everyone is, to some degree, motivated by self-interest.

Also, it is hard to track activities in a large organization. People are busy and don’t have time to keep others in the loop. People speak different professional languages and live in different cultures. Finance people have different customs from sales or manufacturing people. They are re- warded dif-ferently.

Silos aren’t created by evil people. Sure, some organizations are filled with empire builders, back stabbers and ego buffers. But systemic, organizationwide silos are more likely the result of systems. And, systems can be changed.

What HR policies contribute—however unwittingly—to silo building?
Incentive and performance systems should encourage people to collaborate, but they often don’t because of motivational differences. Rewarding cross-functional behavior is tricky because it’s hard to trace collaborative work to the bottom line. Incentives aren’t going to change behavior; you have to use leadership, persuasion and recognition of behavior to encourage silo busting, and you have to promote people who collaborate well.

What are some examples of how companies are effectively dismantling silos?
Leaders are seeing results from cross-functional product development teams. Job rotation and cross-training are also successful. Creating informal networking opportunities sounds trivial, but the evidence is strong that relationships heavily impact productivity and creativity.

Open-space architecture breaks down silos. The Swiss offices of Novartis AG in Basel, for example, were designed for collaboration with common workspaces, sofas, soft lighting and cappuccino machines to encourage people to talk, share ideas and build relationships.

You don’t need to spend millions of dollars; you can do something simple like issue each employee a laptop and install wireless so people aren’t tethered to cubicles.

Are there situations where silos are good for organizations?
Collaboration is not always productive. As Morten Hansen, author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business Press, 2009) has shown, some sales teams do worse when outsiders offer to help.

The cost of cross-unit collaboration is high. You have to learn another language, you have to appreciate others’ values systems, you have to negotiate terms, and you have to invest in time-consuming meetings. Sometimes it’s energizing, and sometimes it’s not. HR professionals should assess whether the effort is worth the payoff. If it’s not, people should be left alone to work in their silos.

The interviewer is a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.

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