Named after the grain storage structures that separate different types of grain, communication silos occur when departments or teams within a company fail to communicate effectively.
In other words, they're those pesky things that happen when people in an organization communicate with each other in their own little worlds, without much regard for what's happening in the rest of the company.
This lack of communication can have a significant impact on business, as it can lead to inefficiencies, errors, and a general feeling of disconnect among employees.
But before we start talking about ways to tear them down, let's first take a closer look at what communication silos are and how they actually impact business.
Communication Silos are Not the Enemy
The truth is that communication silos per se are not something that should be fought. Yes, I know that it sounds counterintuitive considering what I wrote before, but the truth is that working and communicating in closed groups is the most natural way for humans to interact.
It's a "tribal mentality" as Ron Ashkenas, co-author of The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook, put it, and fighting it is not only futile but also counterproductive.
Communication silos can be an indicator of a close-knit and efficient team. They often occur in departments that are highly focused and have a clear sense of purpose and are therefore essential in assessing the strength of a company.
It's only when silos become too detached from the rest of the company that they become problematic. In other words, communication silos become an issue not when they exist, but when they're not connected to the rest of the company.
This is what Chris Fussell, co-author of One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, and former Navy SEAL, had to say on the matter: "The real problem in most organizations is that those silos are disconnected… and information travels too slowly, resulting in a failure to adapt."
How Communication Silos Impact Business
Once we understand that communication silos do not come to be because of a lack of communication, but because of an excess of focus, the question becomes: how do they impact business?
They actually have both positive and negative effects on business and depending on the industry your company operates in, as well as how well your leadership handles siloed and internal communication, the end result can go either way.
How Silos Affect Efficiency
As an example, let's see how communication silos impact efficiency.
It's easy to see why communicating and working within a closed group can be efficient - you have your team, you know what they're working on, and everyone is focused on the same goal.
You have your lingo, your established channels, there are no distractions, no need to explain yourself to people who are not part of the team, and no wasted time.
On the other hand, as Ashkenas says, “If teams go off to do their own thing, and then months pass, and you realize that the plans don’t work, you have to go back and do them all over again. It leads to all sorts of problems with getting to market on time, dissatisfied customers—the risks are tremendous.”
How Silos Affect Productivity
When it comes to productivity, communication silos are also a double-edged sword. They tend to increase productivity within one organizational unit - if you have a team where communication flows smoothly and everyone is on the same page, you are more likely to be productive.
However, if silos lead to a disconnect between departments, chances are that this increased productivity will not be translated into an increase in company-wide productivity. In fact, it might even lead to a decrease, as departments start drifting away from each other and might even start to compete with each other instead of collaborating.
How Silos Affect Employee Cohesion
This one is less talked about, but communication silos can actually have a positive effect on employee cohesion, as they create a sense of belonging and community. Research shows that a silo offers potential psychological safety within a known community, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and higher retention rates.
But that cohesion does tend to stay within one team, rather than being translated into a feeling of belonging to the company as a whole. So while silos can create a strong team spirit, they might do so at the expense of employee loyalty to the company.
How to Overcome the Negative Effects of Communication Silos
It all comes down to the fact that, contrary to popular belief, you should not be striving to break down communication silos, but rather connect them in a way that is beneficial for your business.
It's basically having the best of both worlds: the focus and cohesion of a silo, with the transparency and collaboration of an open system.
The challenge is to identify silos that are problematic or that threaten to become so and to identify and take remedial steps. And while this might seem like a daunting task, it is actually not that difficult to achieve, as long as you have the right tools and processes in place.
The Best Strategies to Connect Communication Silos
A lot of it has to do with culture and mindset, but there are also some very concrete things you can do to connect your silos:
- Encourage lateral communication
Create opportunities for employees from different departments to talk to each other, for example through lunch & learns, cross-departmental task forces, or internal communication platforms that foster interaction and conversation.
With the emergence of the hybrid workplace, organizations worldwide have seen a rise in modularity, and modern problems call for modern solutions.
87% of employees think leaders should reconsider the way they think about technology in the workplace, and 84% say businesses are missing opportunities by not moving to more modern solutions, and that is in fact one of the best ways to connect your silos:
By using a flexible communication platform that allows employees to easily connect with each other, regardless of location or time zone, and share important information and knowledge.
There are a number of different platforms that can help you connect your silos, but we would encourage you to take a look at Lorino, which is designed to help facilitate conversation, collaboration, and knowledge sharing across silos.
- Encourage transparency
Not every piece of information needs to be broadcasted across the company, but employees should have access to the information they need to do their job.
This includes things like customer feedback, project updates, and financial data, but also information about company culture, values, and strategy. An added bonus would be if you also invested in informal conversation and networking, to create a more human connection between employees.
Providing a centralized channel, where all that information could be shared, would make it possible for everyone to find what they need when they need it. It would also make it easier for employees to connect with each other and have the kind of conversations that lead to collaboration and innovation.
- Communicate a Unified Vision
A strong and clear company vision is one of the best things you can do to connect your silos because it gives everyone a sense of purpose and direction.
Make sure everyone in the company is aware of the vision, and that they understand how their work contributes to it. This will help create a sense of cohesion and loyalty, and will make it easier for employees to see the bigger picture.
It's also important to remember that the company vision should be an ever-evolving thing, that changes and adapts as the company grows. So make sure you keep it updated, and that you communicate any changes to all employees.
- Create Shared Accountabilities
When different departments or teams are working towards the same goal, it creates a sense of shared responsibility and accountability.
This means that everyone is invested in the success of the project or initiative and that they are more likely to collaborate and communicate effectively.
One way to create shared accountabilities is to set up cross-functional teams, where employees from different departments work together on a specific task or goal. This will help to connect different silos and create a more collaborative culture.
- Encourage Feedback
Make sure to create a feedback loop between different departments, so that information can flow up as well as down the hierarchy. This can be done through regular check-ins, but also through surveys, focus groups, or other feedback mechanisms.
Encourage employees to give feedback, and make sure that it is acted upon. This will help to create a more open and transparent culture and will make it easier for different departments to connect with each other.
The key to effective communication is not to break down silos, but to connect them in a way that is beneficial for your business. This includes things like encouraging lateral communication and encouraging transparency.
With the right communication tools, you can ensure that everyone in your company is always on the same page, no matter what department they are in. And that is the first step to creating a truly cohesive and effective team.