Silo Thinking is the enemy to building skills
Does your right hand know what the left is doing?
Does it care to find out?
In an efficient, productive organization, managerial oversight is only one part of ensuring every person, department, or project is on-track. Effective managers can certainly foster communication and keep tabs on all the action, but there are limits to how involved leadership can or even should be involved in the day-to-day.
Effective cross-training and communication are less about competence and more about consideration. It would be inefficient and unrealistic to try to build a workforce exclusively from Jack of All Trades-types who can drop into any role and perform well without hesitation. More important is ensuring that individuals in different roles, departments, or specialized areas can communicate, collaborate, and generally support each other. People are resources; they need to recognize that and be both willing and able to utilize one another.
That kind of cooperative environment is not just a matter of company culture or mindset conditioning—although that certainly doesn’t hurt. Regardless of size or business niche, companies can benefit from developing a training system to expose every employee to every department and role. It can be a powerful ingredient in building stronger, more effective teams.
Lessons From the Bedside
Healthcare professionals are a perfect example of the importance of breaking out of the silo mentality, as hospitals require more business sense and management professionals to help carry them through the technological, political, and economic disruptions they face today. Bradley University, which commissioned a study alongside a pioneering transdisciplinary course, drew in faculty and students from its nursing programs to see how exposure to non-medical disciplines could enrich their medical education.
As expected, the pilot program demonstrated the importance of cultural awareness in healthcare—something in which the participating nursing students did not even realize they were not sufficiently well-versed. In essence, being forced to engage with other students with a completely different curriculum, language, and academic culture underlined the importance for nursing students to be more adaptable and conscious of the different backgrounds their patients might bring to a consultation.
This is a common failing of leadership in industries of all types and companies of all sizes: a lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity.
Nurses have to treat patients regardless of language barriers, cultural differences, or even personality types. So, too, must business leaders be prepared to bridge the gaps between different departments, teams, or even coworkers, to ensure they are communicating effectively. Even more important, this kind of interdepartmental collaboration is critical to ensuring workers with different skill sets and areas of focus are sensitive to how their roles intersect.
One of the key lessons from the Bradley study was teaching students to respect and appreciate every individual. Likewise, learning and collaboration are impossible in a culture that does not prioritize mutual respect. It is easy to treat high-skilled roles as more important, relevant, or worthy of praise and attention than more entry-level roles; it is also a mistake.
Alternatively, treating each member of the team or workforce as though he or she is capable of making a valuable contribution encourages more exchanges of ideas, collaborative problem-solving, and of course, interdepartmental awareness. Recognizing the contributions of different departments is key to fostering mutual respect.
Not My Problem
Silo thinking is the enemy to an integrated workforce because it justifies treating projects, problems, and even opportunities as “someone else’s problem.”
This sort of tunnel-vision may adhere to a strict definition of personal accountability, but it is also restrictive and limiting. Developing a greater cultural sensitivity should also entail getting workers to share more responsibility and think more collaboratively. “Not my problem” may be an accurate assessment of certain challenges in terms of literal job descriptions, but it underlies a lack of investment and commitment to the larger project, team, or even company.
An engaged workforce doesn’t just mean people are fixated on their jobs, individual performances, and particular roles. To succeed, they must also engage with each other, invest in their collective output, and become more accountable to each other. This fosters greater learning and up training and allows leadership to delegate with greater confidence. That means less time-fighting fires and tracking individuals, and more time developing an aspirational vision for the whole company.