On Organizational Silos and How to Surmount Them

It’s been 25 years since Jack Welch, the iconic former leader of General Electric, encouraged a different way of looking at how businesses are organized and managed.

He advocated for the “boundary-less” organization, marked by faster decisions, greater employee engagement and stronger collaboration. He brought it to life as the “GE Work-Out Process,” and the underlying philosophy – the need to remove the hierarchies and silos and fragmented processes and cultures – has been popular among management gurus ever since.

Still, 25 years later, everyone seems to have a recipe for making the Kool-Aid. But why aren’t more organizations drinking?

From my perspective, Jack Welch is an excellent role model and this particular flavor of Kool-Aid is one that should go down well. In growing a 200-plus employee organization that’s a leader in construction and construction management, my firm, MBM Consulting, couldn’t have earned its reputation for innovation and quality had we been mired in a rigid and controlled environment with a trickle-through communications style.

That isn’t to say that organizational silos don’t have their place. Especially in larger organizations, they offer structure. They provide a place for specific areas of expertise to flourish. And they allow some measure of control to be exerted over the flow of information up and down the organization.

But, when the walls are too high, there’s a price to be paid. Alignment of priorities goes off-kilter. Bottlenecks occur and stifle the information flow. And decision-making in a vacuum occurs, with long-term negative implications for the business.

So, how can organizations do a better job of, if not dismantling their silos, at least reducing the height of the dividers between them?

Here are three suggestions that I’ve adapted to my own organization’s purposes.

1.     Establish a top-down culture of communication and collaboration. It takes leadership commitment, people at the top who walk the talk. I try to personify the behaviors that I want to see in my teams. It takes time and commitment to grow a culture where opinions and input from across the aisle are solicited and valued. To a significant extent, that also takes articulating that commitment in meaningful vision and mission statements that everyone trusts.

2.     Borrow from Jack Welch’s “work-out” process. The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is, of course, to coordinate across a fragmented and geographically dispersed structure and functions. A fairly simple solution is to fashion your initiatives as regular forums designed to improve cross-functional and hierarchical communications and, ultimately, push for faster decision-making. Team leaders for a tech company, for example, successfully brought together its R&D and business areas, whose combined input led to a faster process for product commercialization.

3.     Share the successes. When you’ve surmounted the barriers and joined disparate teams and disciplines together to tackle the big challenges that can affect your productivity, growth and financial performance, give credit where it’s due. You’ll strengthen the bonds of your organizational fabric and also motivate others to want to play a role in this collaborative environment.

The fact is that whether you’re the chief executive or project manager or IT troubleshooter or marketing specialist, everyone has shared goals in pushing for the future success of your organization. The more effectively you can remove the barriers from collaboration and communication, the greater your measure of success will be.