The burden of the silo – a damper on talent and creativity

Silo working has been much derided within the local authority sector.

Yet it persists as the primary building block of most council organisations. What is the problem with silos? Why are they so hard to change? And what can it look like when they do change?

The problem with silos

Silos are at the root of numerous problems.

  • They get in the way of flexible roles and responsibilities
  • They are a barrier to collaboration across functional boundaries
  • They stifle creativity as they stifle challenge
  • They tend to be professionally centric rather than customer centric – not ideal for good customer service
  • They lock people into narrowly defined roles and as a result prevent talent from developing and taking on wider responsibilities and challenges
  • They encourage unnecessary hand-offs and inefficiencies – ultimately with the customer bearing the brunt of the poor communication that inevitably results
  • They are inherently unproductive as they lock in work that could be done elsewhere, more efficiently, more cheaply and closer to the customer
  • They encourage professional sub-cultures making it difficult to develop a single corporate, customer centric culture

Why are they so hard to change?

Silos are inevitably the product of history and have been sustained over time with countless layers of reinforcement. Here are just some of the explanations of why they are difficult to break.

  • They are hierarchical and people at the top are often paid by reference to the number of people reporting to them. It is not in their interests to dismantle them
  • Politicians quite like them – they know who is in charge and can quickly go and find out what is going on
  • They have been reinforced with line of business IT systems making it difficult to invest in ‘corporate’ technology
  • Because a change requires fundamentally addressing the operating model and how people work – this is a big deal and so the sector has been slow to address the fundamentals of how people work
  • It is easier to focus on redesign of processes and encouraging automation (efficiency and channel shift) while assuming the organisation will stay much as it is
  • People are used to them – changing what you know and love is always hard

The alternative

Our view is that organising around the nature of the work rather than the professional discipline unlocks a range of benefits for the organisation, the people who work in it and most importantly the customer. Technology helps enormously as it allows an organisation to allocate work and move it around an organisation in a much more flexible way than before.

The diagram below illustrates how activities are spread across silos, and how they could be shared more efficiently.

Organisations will not always be able to completely reorganise along these lines because of the resistance outlined above. However, a pathway can be plotted that takes an organisation on a journey to what we label a ‘Future Model way of working’.

Potential steps on the journey are illustrated below:

The challenge for a single organisation is one thing. The direction of travel for the sector is for there to be more combinations and mergers and the creation of more unitary authorities.

Aligning around a single model in some ways can make things easier as everyone changes to a common model.

However, there is an even wider challenge – to work across organisational boundaries and integrate work across organisations. There are signs of this happening, but not fast enough. It makes sense for customers and it makes sense financially, but it will take time and will require a lot of people to stand back and shelve their allegiance to their own personal organisation and silo – which they have grown to know and love over many years.

We should keep challenging, but not underestimate what is needed to replace them with something better.