First published in OnOffice magazine, and reproduced given all of the talk about silos with the much-heralded first leviathan-to-leviathan conversation between the CIPD and BIFM.
NU: You’re “in HR” and I’m “in Workplace”. Silos. Everywhere we look in the farmyard that is the corporate world. Still. Which is amazing considering the credence that has been attached to “collaboration”, that favourite son of interaction. In the workplace tower/bunker/bag (the three types of grain silo) we have been ever-increasingly drawn to design and create spaces for interaction for the last decade, mindful that silos are a “bad thing”. As they haven’t gone away, tell me, from your tower/bunker/bag – will they ever? Or is it just an over-romanticised fantasy?
DDS: That’s an easy one. I work “in HR” and as spring arrives I anticipate we will all move to a glorious new dawn: a period where everyone spends their time completing performance reviews, following a coaching model slavishly in every conversation and running around in sunkissed fields. If this doesn’t come to pass (somehow) then I’d suggest we reflect on why silos are there in the first place. E effective communication doesn’t necessarily mean the end of personal agendas and poor incentivisation. We get mistrust within our own families, it’s slightly idealistic to suggest we can eradicate it from companies by moving to a flexible space. I’m not sure open plan kitchens ended teenagers feeling misunderstood or reduced divorce rates (the ultimate silo).
NU: So before we consider how we might break down silos – the fanciful corporate dream – should we ask whether they might actually be a good thing? Have silos actually helped organisations, maintained structure and strength during testing times, provided a sense of belonging and purpose to individuals otherwise liable to alienation and drift? And so are we actually seeking to destroy something beneficial that we will only miss when gone?
DDS: I don’t think they’ll go – so I don’t think you need to worry too much about missing them. The Tribes that we feel part of in a workplace help give us a sense of identity, of belonging and of reassurance. Humans are programmed to find common ground with others and to ‘herd’. Whether that is a positive instinct or not is a question about the nature of humanity… but the one thing we have learnt about workplaces is that, whilst they can bring out the worst in us, we never stop being us.
NU: Anthropologically and agriculturally we are – therefore – stuffed? Into silos?
DDS: There is a growing view that organisations should be flexible, fluid and adaptable – I’d argue that sometimes strength comes from resilience and independence. And silos give you pockets of true independence that can provide that – there is a reason we have a House of Lords. Whatever you may think of the contents of that House…well, we all know how it should work.
NU: If the over-stated desire to break down silos might in itself be dangerous, so perhaps we have lurched too far towards space designed to help break down silos, in the same way as we have forsaken the need for individual focus and steamrolled the needs of introverts. If silos provide pockets of beneficial independence, our space needs to respect and support that. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to forcibly extricate human beings from their towers/bunkers/(bags), and to work with them instead?
DDS: I think the conflict has always been that the attractiveness of ‘no silos based Utopia’ has never been realised. We’ll never understand the downsides, as we won’t achieve it, so we’ll continue to strive for it.
NU: Wait, I will go and get the Dead Horse. We keep it handy for the “paperless office”, and any mention of “collaboration” or the “war for talent”. [*No horses were harmed in making this Virtual Cuppa].
DDS: There’s a great line by Dylan reflecting on the unachievable: “Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial, Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while”. I like playing the thought experiment of imagining complete openness and whether people would enjoy that. I hazard they may not, but we’ve been striving for it all my career. It may be that what we are striving for is less the destruction of silos and more a reduction of backstabbing. I’m all for a reduction in backstabbing. Although since the world is sometimes a harsh place you might argue the ability to deal with it shows the organisation can reflect its customer base.
NU: Thanks for the chat Dave. Now, after you……