Trash Organizational Silos? Not So Fast

June 18, 2015

I read “Three things You Need to Break Down Those Company Silos.” Enterprise search vendors have harped on the impossible dream: Federate an organization’s information and data. Make the content available to authorized users.

The reality is a bit different from the cute PowerPoint slides with photos of farm silos and placid bovines.

The article comes at silos is a different, almost Lord of the Rings fantasy way. The write up states:

The title of this feature makes it pretty clear that we think a company operating in a silo mentality is a Bad Thing and that the structure needs to be sorted out…Take the information security function of your business. Can you let individual departments look after their security? Of course not, because they don’t know how to and they won’t do it anyway – particularly the sales function because given the choice of employing a security specialist (who costs money) or a salesperson (who does quite the opposite) the decision is a no-brainer.

Yep, security. Let’s reflect a moment. There are issues in the popular press about the security rupture at the unit of the White House, called Office of Personnel Management. That’s the outfit that kept track of me as a contractor, employees, and Snowden types. Then there is the Anthem health care thing, the Target thing, the hacking of the US Army’s Web site, and, gee, lots of other examples.

Broken silos, like this one, kill folks. One giant silo, if it breaks, may kill lots of farmers. The CBS news crew wisely observed from a helicopter. And silos can burn or explode. Boom. Stay back may be good advice.

What’s this tell us? Talk about security sells consulting work. But the mechanisms within many organizations ignore security. So, silos and security? Yep, these work pretty well in the pharma industry. Some helpful folks in marketing are just not allowed to know who is working on what in which lab, and for good reason. Silos are best implemented by stakeholders. No perceived stake, no security.

Let’s move on.

The article in a somewhat parental fashion tell me what I need, and you too, of course. The suggestions are MBA baloney. A person not in top management is not going to get through to the top dogs. Maybe Bain, BCG, Booz, Allen and McKinsey consultants can communicate at this carpet land level. But my hunch is that most others are going to get a smile and not much else.

I want to take a moment and consider these suggestions. Let’s assume that I am a 25 year old working on a project and I have some “matrix” responsibility for technical quality assurance for a software product.

The article wants me to help the senior managers to understand the big picture. As a 20 something, my concept of a big picture was the 20 inch TV in Sears. When I was 25, I had zero—and I am speaking from the experience of my 50 year work history—idea what the big picture of the company employing me is. I worked at Halliburton Nuclear and Booz, Allen for years. I then moved into senior management at other big outfits. No reasonable senior officer expected me, no matter how clever I was supposed to be, to know what the organization’s big picture is. The two or three men and women at the top, in my experience, struggled with figuring out where on the wall the picture was located. Big was quarterly numbers. Inputs from below are like pellets fired at a military aircraft cruising at 30,000 feet.

The second thing I need, according to the article, is identifying tasks that belong elsewhere. Okay, let’s think about this. I visited a company 10 days ago. The firm had a headquarters which contained computers, products, and people. The company had dozens of offices. As an outsider with decades of business experience, I could—note the word “could”—have told the firm to move to lower cost real estate, migrate the computer systems to Amazon, get rid of full time staff and shift to contract workers whom the company would call when there were tasks to perform, shift suppliers from vendors in Europe to Vendors in Cambodia, etc. What I did was focus on a handful of suggestions that were within the resource capacity of the company. What is the point in telling the three senior managers to do things which the company cannot afford, cannot match to the firm’s business processes, or to the technical capabilities of the staff? If I were 25 and slogging through some fun stuff related to nuclear fuel, I would be unable to identify meaningful actions for our designated Halliburton leader, an impressive fellow named Thomas H. Cruikshank, who when I knew him had not yet become the chairman and CEO of Halliburton Energy Services. I watched, I learned, and I kept my mouth shut. My job was to process nuclear data and do whatever the top dogs told me to do. I found this approach to be quite beneficial to me and my career. When asked, I would formulate a response. Tell top dogs what belonged elsewhere? Nope, not for me.

The third thingI need to do, according to the article, is to do my job well. Okay, easy to say, but for me and the majority of the hundreds of employees I have hired, trained, and managed over the last 50 years, the key is to help people succeed. The “well” stuff is subjective and irrelevant. A script or program works or it does not. Let’s do the works part and tackle the well later or maybe never. The more reliable objective approach is to define tasks so that a specific employee can perform that task, learn along the way, and complete the work so that his or her output is useful to a co worker, a customer, or a friend of the senior vice president’s spouse. Screw ups occur with broad generalizations. “Well” is not the same as completion and feedback and improvement. Excellence results from doing tasks, making errors, adapting, and producing outputs that others can use. If I were a 20 something and my boss told me to do something well, my reaction would have been, “Why did you hire me if you did not think I was [a] bright, [b] a hard working task oriented individual , and [c] committed to doing what I had to do to win the respect of  my co workers and clients?” The question would cause me to lose confidence in that manager.

Let me circle back to enterprise search. For decades vendors took the Fast Search & Transfer approach (other vendors used this method as well). The vendor would say, “We can index all of your organization’s information.” Then the vendor would suggest, “Search will unlock the value of the knowledge in your organization.”


The vendors who took and continue to take this approach are unaware that their customers will quickly learn that the emperor has no clothes. No one wants “all” information available. Do you want your personal health records online and searchable? What about the drafts of the contract for the sale of the unit in Princeton, New Jersey, to a Chinese investment firm? What about the golf scramble data on your laptop which you run as a favor for a pall in the Kiwanis Club of Topeka, Kansas?

Silos are not going away. Silos of information are central to many work processes? Individuals who yap about removing information silos, work silos, or any other kind of silo are trapped within a large, somewhat oily MBA sausage on

Management precepts like Fast Search-type assertions do little to solve some very real, very important business problems. Focus and appropriate control are more helpful that business school saucisson.

Stephen E Arnold, June 18, 2015


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