How to Break Down Information Silos

by | Mar 15, 2019 | General

 | 4 min read

Photo of Silos

Sooner or later the question, how to store and archive data for extended periods of time while still keeping it accessible will arise for everybody working in a user-centered way. Per definition, silos are tall towers used to store some kind of substance. However, they are also used to isolate their content and therefore ill-equipped for the storage of information. Consequently, the term data or information silo is used to describe interrupted communication structures that lead to problems during collaboration within companies. Affected companies are usually large, as information silos are especially common when companies consist of multiple separate departments. Making informed decisions and working efficiently is usually made more difficult by information silos.

The definition of Information Silos

The term information silo is used in business development and IT and describes an isolated system that is unable (or unwilling) to cooperate with adjacent systems. It’s common for larger companies to produce an environment that consists of a number of self-contained systems involuntarily. Usually, these silos are different departments that don’t exchange information and therefore don’t communicate and collaborate efficiently or at all.

Taking a deeper look into silos, how they arise and consolidate you will notice that sometimes information silos are distinguished from data silos. The difference between these structures is quite small: while information silos are caused by insufficient or non-existing communication, data silos originate from technical issues that result in an interrupted flow of information. These technical issues can, for example, be caused by departments using different tools to manage their data or communicate within their team.

As a result, working in a collaborative way or sharing information can become very hard or even impossible because of different storage formats. Even if it is a known fact that collaboration or connection between two or more isolated departments would be extremely beneficial, overcoming data silos can be hard.

While you can differentiate between data and information silos, most of the time you can’t really separate them. Usually, siloed structures aren’t a direct result of teams unwilling to communicate with other teams or technical problems but a combination of both problems. However, it is a known fact that data silos and information silos enforce each other since they both raise the barrier for communication across teams respectively. All in all, differentiating between the two kinds of silo seems unnecessary as this doesn’t help to solve the problem at hand. To ensure a smooth flow of information every kind of silo should be dismantled.

The origin of silos

As stated above, a disrupted flow of information and lack of exchange and collaboration in a company indicate that silos are present. The common way to structure larger companies actually facilitates the formation of silos. Different departments in companies each have their own manager and try to reach their own goals while usually not considering the goals and needs of other departments. If a company doesn’t consciously make an effort to value and facilitate collaboration and communication it’s especially prone to silos emerging.

If there are conflicts between interests within the management tier, this problem becomes even graver. Members of different teams become unwilling to exchange information and while they might not be actively keeping information from each other, they aren’t voluntarily sharing it either. Even without conflict, communication usually stagnates as soon as the effort needed to contact another person exceeds the perceived usefulness of the information exchange.

Summing up the above ponderings it’s safe to assume that silos are more likely within companies that have:

  • A high number of employees
  • A high number of different departments
  • Departments that are very distinct or specialized
  • Departments with diverse interests
  • A strongly enforced incentive system

Silos’ negative effects

As soon as teams that should be collaborating, exchanging information or communicating in some way are prohibited from doing so, silos have a negative effect. While it may not sound like it, this issue is quite grave already. You’ll be hardly able to find a company that doesn’t struggle with internal communication on some level. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of sensible reasons that could justify separating different departments within companies from each other.

Another obvious problem with silos lies in the fact that information isn’t accessible to the outside. While information can travel, accumulate and be shared within a silo, it can’t be shared with outside parties. It can even be hard to determine what exactly is stored in a given silo. As a result, people looking for a certain piece of information can have a hard time trying to identify the responsible person to contact. Even if they know a certain piece of knowledge is probably present somewhere they might be unable to locate it. As it becomes easier to just replicate the needed information, inefficient duplicate research is conducted.

Data silos can’t be connected which means that data can’t be connected between silos. Thus data that is stored within one silo can’t be used to enrich data that is stored in a different silo. As a result synergy effects can’t be leveraged and potential insights aren’t discovered: viewing data fragments instead of evaluating all of the available data and its connections will make it harder to discover anomalies and patterns. Consequences for you range from missing opportunities to making misguided decisions.

On top of that communicating a consistent corporate image to external stakeholders becomes nearly impossible if the necessary information isn’t shared. Also, the more departments feel separated from each other, the less group cohesion will be present in the company.

Eliminating Information and Data Silos

If you feel that silos exist within your company they can, fortunately, be broken down. To start this process you should urge your executive level to start aligning everyone’s work towards one shared company goal and enforce a stronger company culture. As a basis for future activities within departments, their managers should try to agree on a vision that they also convey to their employees consistently. In the end, every person should have a clear idea of what they can do to contribute to the company’s goal.

An exchange between teams should always be encouraged for example by making appropriate tools available that help to communicate, connect and save information. This should minimize the communication overhead between departments and increase the benefit gained from collaboration. Realizing that communication is valuable not only within teams is the first step to gradually break down silos.

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Mara Weingardt

Mara is interested in all topics around user research, user testing, as well as usability and UX.
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