How CIOs Can Deal With The Problem Of Silos

Silos exist inside and outside of IT, CIOs need a plan to deal with them
Silos exist inside and outside of IT, CIOs need a plan to deal with them
Image Credit: Rex Hammock

As the person with the CIO job at your company, you have control over the domain of IT. If you want it to happen in your department, then it’s going to happen. However, if we step outside of your department into finance, or accounting, or sales, your power starts to drop off rather quickly because they don’t have the same view of the importance of information technology. The one thing that you don’t seem to be able to do is to get different departments to work well with your IT department. There has to be a way to solve this problem of silos within the company.

Why Do Silos Exist?

I’ve known many a CIO to throw their hands up in disgust when some project that they were working on ran into problems because another department was not willing to support it. They just could not understand why the other department could not see how important the project was – it was clear to the IT department! However, there have been many other situations where CIOs that I’ve been working with who were overloaded would routinely assign a low priority to any request that came from outside of their department.

This whole “silo” mentality is really a cultural issue that we all have to learn how to deal with. The reason that we have to deal with silos is because everyone has absorbed a dense set of traditions, rules, and conventions that we have absorbed from our surroundings. All of this is done in an unconscious way and so we don’t even know that we are doing it (“I am in IT, you are in Accounting”). Silos show up when we create a classification of the world around us and then we resist any attempt to change those classifications.

What’s a CIO to do when he or she encounters a world that is filled with silos? In many companies when this situation is discovered, this is when the management consultants are brought in. They show up, spend time talking with everyone, and eventually present the company with a new set of organizational charts. If you have ever lived through one of these silo busting reorganizations, then you know that their impact is often short lived – we just build new silos and go on with our lives.

What Can CIOs Do About Silos?

Let us admit that every organization has a problem with a silo mentality. What this means for anyone in the CIO position is that you are going to have to find a way to deal with this in a way that can allow the IT department to accomplish everything that it needs to get done. I’m not sure if it’s going to help you out a lot, but the good news is that you are not alone!

Classic stories of IT departments that were part of companies that had severe silo problems are easy to find. The financial crisis was bad for everyone, but it was especially bad for the UBS bank. It turns out that they were both selling financial instruments that had no value while other parts of the company were buying the very same instruments. Clearly a silo problem. Sony has struggled to regain market share in the past few years. One of its biggest problems has been that each of its products has been an island – they don’t work together. Yet another case of silo syndrome.

As the CIO you need to take steps to prevent silos from forming both outside of the IT department and within it. There are a number of different things that you can do. One is to move employees around from project to project. Encourage them to change projects if what they are working on does not meet their needs. Make sure that everyone is getting new challenges. Another key silo busting technique is to prevent people from referring to people by which department they work in (“marketing”), instead insist that people are referred to by their name first, and their department second.

What All Of This Means For You

CIOs need to realize that silos exist both within their company and within their IT department. Silos can prevent projects and initiatives from moving forward because people simply don’t want to talk to each other. CIOs can’t ignore silos, they need to take action.

It turns out that silos exist because of the way that people think. We form a view of the world in our heads and then we resist any attempts to try to change our views. Bringing in management consultants can change things, but rarely does it solve the silo problem. CIOs can address the problems caused by silos by moving employees from project to project and encouraging them to switch teams if they want to. CIOs should also make sure that their staff stop refereeing to other people by which department they work in – use names.

Silos are a part of the modern business environment. Every CIO needs to realize this and come up with a plan for dealing with them. There is really no magic involved. Instead, CIOs need to work with their departments and make sure that no one is permitted to stay in a position long enough to develop a silo mentality.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: How can a CIO get other departments to help him or her get rid of silos?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As the person with the CIO job, we like to spend our time looking forward and thinking about the importance of information technology. Trying to detect IT trends and then positioning our IT department to be where it needs to be in order to take advantage of changes when they occur. What we generally don’t do enough of is look at our IT shop and discover what is old and needs to be removed. Moving off of legacy IT systems is hard work, but it is part of the job of the person who is in the CIO position.