Don't Bust Silos -- Bridge Them

Last Updated Mar 10, 2010 10:54 AM EST

The term "organizational silo" really doesn't do them justice. Silos are actually heavily guarded fortresses called the Marketing Department or Finance or Operations, which are protected by impenetrable vines of bureaucracy, entrenched interests and Established Ways of Doing Things.

It is here that all good thoughts of collaboration come to die.

Silos are tough to destroy short of an ugly scorch-the-earth reorg. So when management gurus advise you to "break down the silos!" -- the corporate boundaries that stand between you, your customers, and innovation -- think bridges, not hammers.

Ranjay Gulati, a Harvard Business School expert on how organizations work (or don't), puts it this way in a recent interview with

"You need to find ways to connect all the silos in your organization. This would involve task forces and working groups. Companies need to bridge all the silos through their employees. You cannot mandate it."
"Connect all the silos" is the key idea here. Here are three ways to build these necessary bridges.
  • Empowering. In traditional organizations, information was power, so it was locked away by the holders of that information like a king protected gold in his depository. Today, information must be shared to be of any use, says Gulati. "Businesses must ensure that their people in various units have access to knowledge about the customers they are catering to and have opportunities to use that knowledge to better serve the marketplace."
  • Hiring. As you hire, look for people who value collaboration over turf building, who enjoy team work over solo endeavors. Organizational behavior changes one hire at a time.
  • Rewarding. The organization needs to motivate collaborative behavior. "Your employees must be encouraged to bust through silos when necessary and should be rewarded for collaborations that produce successful customer solutions," Gulati writes.
HBS Working Knowledge has more on Gulati and his new book, Reorganize for Resilience.

What's your plan of attack for silo busting?

(Castle image by lilCystar, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.