“Were you briefed on what the product team proposed as part of their 2022 vision? Should we book a call to discuss so you can let Susan know when you meet with her?”
Collaboration across multiple disciplines is integral to ensuring every angle, approach, sensitivity and stakeholder are considered when creating a fine-tuned communications strategy. Yet how often do we find ourselves chasing information, discovering two teams have been unknowingly prioritizing the same project, or being asked to relay summaries of the meetings and emails taking place through the day? Strong, clear communication strategies are essential yet much more difficult to maintain and evolve when teams are not communicating or sharing information with other departments — especially the communications team. This has acquired many names over the years, but one I’ve come to enjoy is the corporate silo effect. This is defined as the impact on an organization resulting from limiting information to specific teams, while leaving others without the information and context often needed to be successful. So, how do we handle that?
It has been noteworthy to witness COVID-19’s impact on this challenge. Upon analyzing aggregated, anonymized metadata from over 360 billion emails across 4,000 organizations globally, a paper from Zuzul et al (2021) found that organizations became increasingly impacted by the corporate silo effect in 2020 compared to the previous year. While providing opportunities in enabling remote work, the shifting of intra-organizational communication networks contributed to greater modularity.
Another interesting contributor to the corporate silo effect is the perception and prioritization of professional relationships, particularly in how leaders navigate strategically. Research from Edmundson et al (2019) confirms that leaders typically regard vertical relations (interactions directly up to our bosses or down to our direct reports) as more valuable than horizontal relations across several departments. Remaining very aligned with bosses and direct reports does make sense. In terms of collaboration and inter-departmental awareness of projects and triaging issues though, this creates opportunity for misunderstandings and information bottlenecks.
Normalize Meeting Culture to Reduce Miscommunications
A threat to open learning environments are cultures that enable hard working isolation, aka accepting opt-out from certain colleagues or high performers who are “too busy” to lean in for internal meetings and town halls, as there just isn’t time with so many deadlines. While opting out of these events seems promising and productive, the missed updates and exchanges often result in having to catch up later.
As any communications professional can attest, the importance of taking a moment to share or listen often takes less time than it does to recover from the consequences of not taking that time. This is especially the case while maneuvering the limitations of COVID-19, where catching the updates later by the watercooler is far less likely. A 2019 white paper from SIS International Research confirms this with small and medium organizations spending an average of 17.5 hours per week resolving internal miscommunications, translating to a yearly loss of $524,569 in productivity — and this average becomes increasingly worse with larger organizations dealing with the corporate silo effect.
Encourage Cross-Silo Dialogue
Echoed from above, making internal updates and town halls mandatory for employees is one way to break down the corporate silo effect, but encouraging back-and-forth communication and feedback in bringing several teams together could also see an increase in engagement, empathy and active listening.
Executive leadership should genuinely encourage their employees to explore their vision through the eyes of clients and other departments internally. With teams navigating very tight deadlines, this can receive pushback as it can seem easier to stay in one’s lane or specialty than to learn the languages and disciplines of other teams, or even that of external stakeholders. However, work from Heidi Gartner in 2015 suggests that organizations with consistent multidisciplinary collaboration actually reach higher margins and customer loyalty.
Another way to break down the corporate silo effect is through a redesign of formal organizational structure activities that facilitate greater collaboration. A tactical example of this could be implementing a high-quality enterprise social platform like Slack to ensure information, corporate vision and updates can filter consistently through several groups simultaneously. A strategic example could be implementing an Agile approach, which requires constant cross-boundary communication and more diverse groups at the table. This ensures objectives are met collaboratively through rapid “sprint” timeframes for quicker speed to market.
It’s important to note that employing Agile methodology does not automatically resolve silos and needs to be genuinely adhered to in order to be effective. That said, the importance of collaborative innovation and quick updates encouraged through the Agile methodology make it a strong contender to dismantling the corporate silo effect over time.
As communications professionals, we are one of the departments most inclined to see impact from the corporate silo effect. The less we are informed of upcoming changes, sensitivities and issues within the organization, the more consequences and reputational risks begin to take shape. That said, our strengths and collaboration across multiple stakeholder groups internally and externally position us powerfully to address this head on.
Whether that’s in collaboration with HR or directly with our executive leadership teams, we can ideally catalyze and support the cultural change required to trickle through every pillar and department. While there are many considerations and complexities at play as to how the corporate silo effect progresses and thrives, leaving this unchecked comes with great costs and consequences for any organization. It will inevitably take time and patience to resolve this regardless of industry and org structure, but through strong leadership presence with strategy that promotes listening, multidisciplinary dialogue and intentional organizational restructuring from the top down, the corporate silo effect may stand a chance at being reduced or terminated.
Paige Strand is a communications leader with experiences across the financial technology, hotel, real estate, restaurant, automotive and publishing industries. Renowned and recruited for expertise in supporting organizations through major growth transitions and intense change, Strand is currently pursuing her PROSCI Change Management certification to further exercise leadership in both communications and change environments. She is a writer, public speaker, mentor and mentee. Her goal for 2022 is to find a nonprofit board to commit to. Strand is the communications manager at Central 1 and a member of IABC’s British Columbia Chapter. Connect with Strand on LinkedIn.