The Silo Situation

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

The technology trend that defines this decade is the movement towards open, pervasive computing. The Internet is at our jobs, in our homes, on our phones, TVs, gaming devices. We email and message everyone from our partners to our clients to our vendors to our kids. For technology managers, the real challenges are less in deploying the systems and software than they are in managing the overlap, be it the security issues all of this openness engenders, or the limitations of our legacy systems that don’t interact well enough. But the toughest integration is not one between software or hardware systems, but, instead, the intersection of strategic computing and organizational culture.

There are two types of silos that I want to discuss: organizational silos, and siloed organizations.

An organizational silo, to be clear, is a group within an organization that acts independently of the rest of the organization, making their own decisions with little or no input from those outside of the group. This is not necessarily a bad thing; there are (although I can’t think of any) cases where giving a group that level of autonomy might serve a useful purpose. But, when the silo acts in an environment where their decisions impact others, they can create long-lived problems and rifts in critical relationships.

We all know that external decisions can disrupt our planning, be it a funders decision to revoke a grant that we anticipated or a legislature dropping funding for a critical program. So it’s all the more frustrating to have the rug pulled out from under us by people who are supposed to be on the same team. If you have an initiative underway to deploy a new email system, and HR lays off the organizational trainer, you’ve been victimized by a silo-ed decision. On the flip side, a fundraiser might undertake a big campaign, unaware that it will collide with a web site redesign that disables the functionality that they need to broadcast their appeal.

Silos thrive in organizations where the leadership is not good at management. Without a strong CEO and leadership team, departmental managers don’t naturally concern themselves with the needs of their peers. The expediency and simplicity of just calling the shots themselves is too appealing, particularly in environments where resources are thin and making overtures to others can result in those resources being gladly taken and never returned. In nonprofits, leaders are often more valued for their relationships and fundraising skills than their business management skills, making our sector more susceptible to this type of problem.

The most damaging result of operating in this environment is that, if you can’t successfully manage the silos in your organization, then you won’t be anything but a silo in the world at large.

We’ve witnessed a number of industries, from entertainment and newspapers to telephones and automobiles, as they allowed their culture to dictate their obsolescence. Instead of adapting their models to the changing needs of their constituents, they’ve clung to older models that aren’t relevant in the digital age, or appropriate for a global economy on a planet threatened by climate change. Since my focus is technology, I pay particular attention to the impacts that technological advancement, and the accompanying change in extra-organizational culture (e.g., the country, our constituents, the world) have on the work my organization does. Just in the past few years, we’ve seen some significant cultural changes that should be impacting nonprofit assumptions about how we use technology:

  • Increased regulation on the handling of data. We’re wrestling with the HIPAA laws governing handling of medical data and PCI standards for financial data. If we have not prioritized firewalls, encryption, and the proper data handling procedures, we’re more and more likely to be out of step with new laws. Even the 990 form we fill out now asks if we have a document retention plan.
  • Our donors are now quite used to telephone auto attendants, email, and the web. How many are now questioning why we use the dollars they donate to us to staff reception, hand write thank you notes, and send out paper newsletters and annual reports?
  • Our funders are seeing more available data on the things that interest them everywhere, so they expect more data from us. The days of putting out the success stories without any numbers to quantify them are over.

Are we making changes in response to these continually evolving expectations? Or are we still struggling with our internal expectations, while the world keeps on turning outside of our walls? We, as a sector, need to learn what these industrial giants refused to, before we, too, are having massive layoffs and closing our doors due to an inability to adapt our strategies to a rapidly evolving cultural climate. And getting there means paying more attention to how we manage our people and operations; showing the leadership to head into this millennia by mastering our internal culture and rolling with the external changes. Look inward, look outward, lead and adapt.

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