… And the Walls Came Tumblin’ Down
Here are several great tips on how to tear down silos between
organizational departments and the association’s communications vehicles.
By Mark C. Wills
In the March 27, 2015 issue
of Sidebar, Alex Schwartzwald of
Knowledge Marketing asserted, "Silos are for farmers — not marketers.” But marketers are not the only association
staffers for whom silos prove problematic.
Association communications professionals also encounter
organizational obstacles when they try to work interdepartmentally. And, as
Paul Guinnessy, strategy manager and website director for American Institute of
Physics’s Physics Today,
suggested at Association Media & Publishing’s April 7, 2015 Lunch &
Learn, "Breaking Down Silos — Between Departments and Communication Vehicles,” even
those in like fields within the same organization can work and talk at cross
Guinnessy says that the financial crisis of 2008-2009
spurred a re-examination of AIP’s priorities and resources by management. This
led to the realization that the magazine’s departments were highly siloed,
along with some of the other divisions.
To begin the arduous task of tearing down these walls, Guinnessy
and company took a handful of important actions:
engagement. Guinnessy noted that with AIP and Physics Today content being pushed to
their audiences through multiple media (RSS, Facebook, and magazines, to name a
few), "There are also silos in the media channels.” He and his group identified
key existing and potential partners, internal and external, and talked with
them about "building closer links” and publishing to their platforms. According
to Guinnessy, this lays "a foundation for better engagement” moving forward.
new bonds. Management, including Guinnessy, rewrote the
staff’s job descriptions to encourage "cross-[team] fertilization.” Another
unique and effective tactic that some companies use, said Guinnessy, is to
install webcams and monitors in the kitchens, so that individuals can see
colleagues on floors they rarely interact with when they need a refill on their
coffee. It’s been effective at starting up conversations about work or
otherwise, he says.
about the process. Guinnessy stressed that breaking down silos is
not a one-time proposition. "You have to keep doing it again and again and
again,” he says. And it can take different amounts of time depending on the
team or department you’re trying to connect with.
A Unified Vision, a Unified Plan
Patrick Lencioni, author of Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, argues that "The key to eliminating
silos is simply to provide a compelling context for colleagues to understand
that they should be rowing in the same direction … and why serving the common
good is better for them than looking out for number one.” This should ring especially
true for associations: Members are much more concerned about the association’s value
to them than what goes on behind the curtain.
Sarah Rand, vice president, digital communications for the National
Retail Federation, says her association’s silos have been toppled somewhat by president
and CEO Matthew Shay’s vision. When Shay joined NRF in 2010, separate websites
and memberships still existed for divisions that had been acquired by the
organization years ago. He quickly identified the need to unify all programs
and staff behind the Federation’s mission, branding his vision "One NRF.”
"Everyone understands NRF’s goals,” Rand says. "When
everyone understands that one vision, there’s not much room for silos.”
Even with Shay’s strong leadership and guidance, Rand notes,
silo smashing cannot be undertaken as an individual effort. She highlighted
several key themes for easing interdepartmental tensions:
and respect. Rand trusts that her colleagues know what
they’re doing. When she goes to them with a problem that they may be able to
solve with their expertise, she leaves them alone.
says, "Be honest about your knowledge base and skill set.”
- Clarity. Document,
document, document, urges Rand. "Put it in writing.” Avoid ambiguity in who
does what by establishing bright lines of roles and responsibilities.
highlights the need to keep lines of communication open. This includes spelling
out what you know, what you don’t know about your colleagues’ work, and why
each of you do what you do. "Over-communication is a myth. Over-communication
is a unicorn,” she says. "Communication is everyone’s responsibility.”
Getting It Done
But just how do you convince colleagues that knocking down
these walls is a good idea? Sometimes, Guinnessy suggests, you can couch
cross-team silo-busting as "experiments” that can be tried out, postponed, or
abandoned without too many egos or bottom lines being hurt. Sometimes, it
becomes a matter of waiting out those who push back, giving them time to see
your team’s unsiloed accomplishments, Rand says.
Nevertheless, Lencioni holds an optimistic view about
breaking down silos. "People want to work together. Really,” he says. "Happier
employees. Happier customers [and members]. It’s a powerful concept, requiring
… more courage and persistence than anything else.”
Mark C. Wills is communications manager for the Public Affairs
Council, a leading association for public affairs professionals. Follow Mark on Twitter.