I’m intrigued by coincidence, and when the coincidence connects with my work, I sometimes wonder is there’s not some sort of hidden message in the coincidence, something or someone telling me to sit up and take notice.
Such was the case the other day, when a colleague asked me how I would respond if a client challenged me by asking how to handle knowledge sharing when silos are in place.
In just a couple of days, another colleague handed me a book, one of Patrick Lencioni’s “leadership fables” (he’s published several).
This one, from eight years ago, is called Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars and the sub-title grabs you: “A leadership fable about destroying the barriers that turn colleagues into competitors.”
On the fly-leaf we learn that Lencioni defines the “costly and maddening issue” of silos as “the barriers that create organizational politics.”
OK. I get the point. Silos are bad, and we have to figure out how to work around them. Or with them. Or through them.
Which is why my first colleague raised the issue with me. I’m sort of known for one of the stories I tell (he referred to it), about how the whole movement toward KM, knowledge services, and knowledge strategy development seems to have come about because organizational leaders (read: managers) need a method – a technique or a tool – to keep information and knowledge in line. Or, as we would put it, to ensure knowledge sharing within the larger organization.
In my story, I talk about how we have – in almost all organizations – what I usually refer to as “discrete disciplines” – functional units that in one way or another have some interest in dealing with the information and knowledge that applies in that particular unit. These may be research- or product-development focused (like a research management unit) or they might be simply functional, like records management, archives, or all the many information-handling activities we find throughout the company.
Whatever they are, these discrete disciplines or departments operate very much on their own; they exist in their own little silos and they are not particularly interested in what’s going elsewhere in the organization. (As an aside I’m remembering that I think I heard once that what we call “silos” in management are referred to as “smokestacks” in the American military but I haven’t been able to verify that – it’s an interesting way to think about this subject, I suppose).
In my story, I make the point (or try to) that managers in organizations are making sense of what we do with knowledge services. They’ve come to think about KM and knowledge services as providing an “umbrella” framework, we might call it, an over-arching enterprise-wide structure for working across the various silos, those “barriers” that Lencioni writes about. With KM and knowledge services, managers can have an organized, well-thought out methodology – a knowledge strategy – for dealing with big-picture information and knowledge matters (and since we’re talking about knowledge services, with big-picture strategic learning as well).
I get a little of that in Lencioni’s leadership fable about silos. He’s not talking about information and knowledge and the side of KM and knowledge services we deal with, but he has good ideas that can be applied in our work. For one thing, Lencioni has a useful theory about how silos come about and how they can be worked with. He looks for a “thematic goal” – a very good idea – and he moves that goal into long-term planning, which we can certainly do as we develop our knowledge strategies.
So there’s a future for knowledge sharing in a silo environment, but until we get there, I’ll try to respond to my friend’s query.
If a client asked me how to deal with knowledge sharing when silos are in place, I would make three suggestions:
- As you make your rounds throughout the company or the organization, look for people working in the silos who are as interested in making KM and knowledge services work well in their bailiwick as you are in yours or (if you are the company’s knowledge strategist) in the larger organization. Learn to spot them, strike up conversations about KM and knowledge services with them, learn what they’re wrestling with, and try to find common ground. You’ll both benefit.
- At the same time, try to find leaders in the company who – without any specific agenda but just interested in good management practices – are willing to speak with you and others about knowledge value, about how the “taking-intellectual-capital-for-granted” approach doesn’t do the organization any good. When there is opportunity get into the habit of identifying and capitalizing on awareness-raising opportunities to talk about knowledge value. You’ll be surprised how many people will respond with something like, “Oh, I never thought about that” and then go on to be fellow advocates for knowledge value.
- When you learn of an exceptionally well done knowledge domain project that has succeeded in one silo, find out who the responsible parties were, for its success. Meet with them, learn about what they did and why it was a success, and think about how the project (or some version of it) might be replicated in another silo. Or better yet, enterprise wide.