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Silo mentality — What it is, does and how to remove it

A silo mentality causes teams to feel alone and hesitant to ask questions

Everyone knows organizations with a silo mentality carry a high level of risk regarding productivity, innovation, agility and overall employee satisfaction. It is not always clear just how big of a problem it is.

Yet, research can help us uncover how harmful expanding silos in organizations can be. 

In our Productivity Drain Research Report 2021, we analyzed the behavior and attitudes of more than 1,000 people working in office environments in the United States, Germany and Switzerland. We discovered that expanding knowledge and collaboration silos are making it harder than ever for employees in large organizations to find the answers they need.

This is causing severe problems for businesses, as the extra hours employees spend searching for information are estimated to cost them millions of dollars every year. It also has a significant negative impact on employees themselves, as they have to spend large chunks of time each week carrying out tedious — and often fruitless – information searches rather than engaging in productive work.

In addition, siloed working — and holding on to a silo mentality — can harm employee satisfaction and wellbeing by making it more difficult for people to innovate, collaborate and share their hard-earned knowledge with others.

So, what exactly is a silo mentality and how can organizations overcome it?

What is a silo mentality? Sharing (and not sharing) knowledge in large organizations

A silo mentality is an unwillingness to share information in organizations across different groups, be it from department to department or other reasons. Silo mentalities can be felt when there is a divide in your organization and imagined boundaries appear, stopping the flow of information and, in turn, work from being completed.

No organization is immune to silos, but they most naturally occur in larger organizations. As teams begin to grow, so does the distance between them, whether emotional or physical.

Ultimately, a silo mentality reduces efficiency as it takes longer to complete tasks. In the worst-case scenario, a silo mentality that spreads can have a lasting impact on your company culture, damaging how employees and external stakeholders feel about your organization.

Why does the silo mentality develop? Startups vs large organizations

Finding answers to questions is easy when you are a 10-person startup. You can walk over to the person responsible for the issue and ask. 

However, as organizations grow bigger, the knowledge within them gets more widely distributed. The person you need to speak to is no longer sitting opposite you. They are sitting in another department, another office, another country (and, more likely than not, you do not even know which department, office or country it is).

In an ideal world, this would provide an impetus for a healthy collaboration culture, with colleagues routinely reaching out across physical and mental boundaries to get the information they need. In reality, the opposite seems to be true. 

Only 65% of respondents said their ability to ask questions and share knowledge with people in other departments was “excellent” or “good”.

Our research revealed that while employees are happy to reach out to colleagues within their existing networks, their willingness and ability to collaborate and create as a team drops significantly when the information they need resides in another department or region. 

A possible cause for this is contacting multiple people before knowing who to ask, as was the case for 27% of our respondents. Similarly, 14% said that even if they know who to ask, they do not feel comfortable reaching out to certain people within the organization.  

Perhaps surprisingly, the reluctance to approach people increases the further up the organization you go, with 27% of those at the senior management level agreeing they would feel uncomfortable reaching out. 

Breaking down knowledge silos, therefore, is not simply about making it easier for people to connect. It may also be about allowing employees to ask questions and access information anonymously, removing the worry about how others will perceive their supposed lack of knowledge.

Where are the knowledge silos in your business?

All silos are bad for knowledge sharing. But not all silos are the same. Some are cultural. Some are geographical. Some are hierarchical. Some are functional. 

Your organization may suffer from one kind of silo mentality more than another. For your competitors, the opposite may be true.

Our research sheds new light on the different types of knowledge silos that exist today and the extent to which they are a problem. Of the people we spoke to:

  • 41% reported knowledge silos between departments
  • 39% between levels of seniority 
  • 36% between different locations
  • 32% between remote workers and office workers
  • 29% between teams within the same department.

If any of these silos are present in your business, they can contribute to a silo mentality. In this event, it becomes the norm to hold on to information and increasingly common to shy away from asking for it. As this attitude becomes more prevalent, it has the opportunity to increase, seeping into other teams and areas of your organization. 

Silo mentality is growing stronger, not weaker

The pandemic has boosted an already growing shift towards remote and hybrid working. According to a recent survey from Enterprise Technology Research (ETR), the percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double in 2021. 

Will the rise in remote working be good news or bad news for employee knowledge sharing?

It is tempting to think the move to a virtual environment would have made collaboration across departments and geographies easier than before. Unfortunately, our findings suggest otherwise, with 65% of respondents telling us remote and hybrid working has made collaboration more complex. Additionally, 55% say there are more knowledge silos in their virtual workplace compared to their physical office. 

What is the solution? The road to removing silo mentality 

One of the main reasons organizational silos emerge in most organizations is that it is not easy to share knowledge across departments, geographies, and hierarchies.

If the information they are searching for resides outside their immediate team, it can be difficult for employees to identify who they need to speak to. If the person with answers is at a more senior level, they may not want to ask for fear of disturbing them, or in case their question appears trivial or silly. 

Ordinary collaboration platforms do not solve the problem because, while they enable team members to connect with each other, they are not designed to help employees identify who has the most knowledge on a specific topic if that person is outside of their immediate network.

Organizations that are serious about breaking down silos will therefore need to adopt a knowledge collaboration platform such as Starmind. This platform connects workers to colleagues with answers across geographical, hierarchical and cultural boundaries. In doing so, it boosts productivity, fosters collaboration and innovation, and improves employee satisfaction and wellbeing.

Download our full Productivity Drain Research Report to learn more about the silo mentality. The research shows a clear need for a human-centric AI-powered knowledge collaboration platform that can help you increase trust, collaboration and knowledge sharing across your organization. 

Read research report.

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