New Research: The Corporate Silo as Impenetrable as Ever

Last Updated Sep 24, 2008 12:27 PM EDT

You'd think that the Harvard Business School research team studying 100 million e-mails and 60 million electronic calendar entries of 30,000 workers at a very large company would find lots of fruitful cross-fertilization going on.

And they did. But most of the cross talk was within business units or among peers. Cross-company contact? Not so much.

"We were surprised by how little interaction occurs across three major boundaries: the strategic business unit, the organizational function, and the geographic office location," says HBS professor Toby Stuart in an interview with HBS Working Knowledge.

Wasn't modern digital technology supposed to usher in an unparalleled era of corporate communication, collaboration, and productivity? Where are all those weak-tied, silo-busting social networks? The authors don't attempt in this study to explain why companies are so hardened in their silos, but their exploration into the "soft wiring" of the modern multinational corporation is fascinating none the less.

To The Servers!
Stuart suggests that executives audit their own company information flows by doing what the research team did: analyze server logs. Says he:

"It can identify the key personnel, functions, divisions, and so forth that bridge the islands of interaction in the firm. It uncovers pairs of organizational units that fail to interact in a meaningful way, or isolated units that are not integrated into the social fabric of the broader organization. And it can illustrate whether lateral coordinating mechanisms put into place by senior management are taking hold in the organization."
How is the cross talk in your work environment? Have you broken down the barriers? Or is the silo alive and well?
  • 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.