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Blogs > MWD Advisors

In praise of the silo
Neil Ward-Dutton By: Neil Ward-Dutton, Research Director, MWD Advisors
Published: 28th June 2013
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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Every organisational feature—including silos—is an outcome of some kind of optimisation. By talking about trying to destroy silos, we’re denying the sometimes very rational reasons behind their creation.

I’ve been travelling to conferences throughout North America and Europe a fair bit over the past quarter, and I’ve seen a lot of people present about business transformation, business architecture and BPM initiatives. One thing I’ve heard presenters talk about in a reasonable number of sessions (I estimate somewhere around 30%) is the need to ‘destroy silos’.

I have a background in architecture and integration, and for a long time I used to think the same. Silos are bad. Silos beget duplication; wheel-reinvention; contradiction; waste. Silos are really bad.

Except…

It turns out that ‘bad’ here really depends on your point of view. Silos aren’t actually ‘bad’, or ‘good’ for that matter. They’re optimisations—just as everything that every organisational, social or technical feature is an optimisation that serves one purpose or other. Silos are what happens when you optimise part of a business for expediency.

Is expediency bad? The default position of some system and enterprise architects appears to be that it is—but it’s not undesirable if, as a board member, you need to execute on a strategy that hinges on mergers and acquisitions; or if you want to enter a new market quickly, create a new product line quickly, or do something else quickly.

A certain kind of silo is also a natural emergent feature of any organisation or society. Birds of a feather flock together! People with similar skills, backgrounds and interests are easier for HR to appraise and develop if they interact with each other; and also if they’re compared to one another. Even in a business that’s moved a long way beyond the teachings of Adam Smith, silos are resilient things for many reasons.

Silos aren’t bad, and silos can’t be destroyed—or at best, trying to destroy  them in any kind of dynamic business environment will resemble some kind of organisational change version of whack-a-mole.

Don’t get me wrong: silos can and should be understood, justified, and where possible bridged. Creating a business that truly serves your customer demands that you do this. But bridging is about building, not destroying.

Am I off base here? Are silos in fact always things to be destroyed? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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