Corporate Departments: Siloed, Solo or Solidly Embedded?

Rethinking the “All Silos are Bad” Article of Faith

By Paul Tibbert, CEO of GRID

Maybe silos aren’t so bad after all.

In the business world, the word “silo” has received (perhaps earned) a bad reputation. The notion that organizational departments get entrenched in their own priorities and their own objectives at the expense of the greater good for the company is certainly something that can often be to the detriment of a business.

But lately, I’ve been noticing more and more “push and pull”…“give and take”…more fluidity between the strict departmental model and one that has departmentalized personnel more embedded into the full fabric of the entire enterprise—operationally, strategically and logistically.

I’ve historically been an advocate of the embed model, and notionally against the departmental model, because of the dangers of said silos. However, in recent years, I’ve been considering the merits of both the push and the pull, giving more thought to the perhaps counterintuitive value in silos, and taking another look at some of the drawbacks of the embed model.

Allowing for Push and Pull

The principles I’m describing and rethinking apply to virtually all departments within corporate organizations, such as legal, HR, marketing, etc., but one I’m most often immersed in is the IT department. When you think about a very small company, one that might have only one person serving as the IT “department,” you get a good sense of what the embed model looks like in its purest form. This individual necessarily has to serve many interests, across the entire company. The IT specialist needs to be the IT staff for the company’s HR functions, its marketing team, the sales staff, leadership and management, and of course, the technology department itself.

Extrapolate that thought, now, to middle-market businesses and large corporations. It is not difficult to see the inherent value of the IT specialist “embedding” in various departments so that he or she is serving the interests of the company at large. In the modern business environment, IT needs to be cross-functional. There can be no silo, as IT will need to both understand and serve the priorities of the organization, and not just the technology that runs it. The IT team needs to be at the service and disposal of each complementary team, while simultaneously making sure the hardware and software are maintained, overseeing cybersecurity and network security, and generally keeping the company “up to date” on all things technology. 

So in a very real sense, a highly valuable IT employee nowadays needs to be something of a generalist…at least versatile enough to hop from priority to priority throughout the day, week, month and year. But perhaps more importantly, that IT manager needs to be authentically embedded into each department/function of the company, so that he or she is driving departmental priorities forward, even if they’re not one’s own, so that leadership is able to achieve broad strategic objectives.

Consider for a moment an HR department, by way of example. The HR team works in service of various departments, whether it be staffing, hiring, discipline, employee policy, compensation, etc. In order to be truly effective in the service of Shipping and Receiving, say, HR needs to embed into Shipping and Receiving’s functions and priorities to be effective—understanding talent demands, knowing departmental policy, etc. 

But the inverse is not true—and that’s really the whole point! Shipping and Receiving will have little interest or ability to contribute to HR’s departmental priorities, such as compliance, labor law and employment regulations, which are part and parcel to the HR silo.

As a result, companies actually should have robust IT departments focused on IT-centric priorities as well. There should be time spent and resources devoted to the IT silo in and of itself. And even within the IT departments themselves you find silos of specialization and tactical focus: some people are hardware specialists, others are software experts; some people are in charge of security and system integrity, others specialize in programming, coding and problem solving.

In fact, it is imperative for IT personnel to remain committed to both the silo and be embedded into departments and corporate functions. If you let one “push” win out over another “pull,” you end up with either too many disconnected and competing silos or you get too many fractured generalists taking the eye off the ball of their own internal departmental mission-critical priorities. That is the “silo-ization” that has earned the bad reputation in corporate vernacular, and that kind of silo-ization to the extreme is, indeed, counterproductive.

I prefer to see both the benefits and potential drawbacks of the embed model versus the departmental model. In fact, I would caution leadership to keep a close eye on their own organizations to monitor their departments for the ebb and flow towards the poles and back toward the middle…siloed versus fully embedded

In other words, that push and pull.

Evolve with Purpose

Which brings me back to silos. Or a potential reassessment of their dangers for businesses and departments.

I think the takeaway for leadership teams is to be aware of this push and pull, and to understand that it’s not necessarily a struggle that needs to be vanquished or eliminated. There is tremendous value in both an IT team that maintains strong focus on IT-relevant skill sets as well as the model that sees the IT team woven into the fabric of the entire company. 

Merely being cognizant of this dynamic and how it evolves with the growth and increased complexity of the company is a strategic advantage that can be exploited and optimized. If I’m in management or leadership, I want both an IT team that remains committed to nuanced and discrete technology priorities for the company as well as personnel that understands and aligns with our big-picture vision and long-term goals of the departments they periodically embed into.

All companies evolve and adapt to changing dynamics, both internal and external. The key is to evolve with purpose. Understand the value of silos, but don’t overcommit to them. Recognize the strength of the embed model, but don’t stunt the tactical focus of your IT personnel. 

This might mean hiring staff that are motivated both by the desire to sharpen the axe and advance a company’s larger priorities. It may also mean building some fluidity into all of your departments, so that teams can ebb and flow with this push/pull. Depending on your business or product, teams may need to be fluid and reactive around seasons, busy production times, or the spikes of a discrete growth phase for the company.

If I’m on the IT side, I need to come to terms with the idea that, as a domain expert and company asset alike, I will have dual motivations. I should remain open to the idea that I need to serve the technology needs of the company without losing sight of the fact that I am ultimately in the service of business’s objectives to produce, serve customers, increase profit and grow. Look for opportunities to embed where possible…but also keep IT-departmental objectives in mind. 

And never stop your own personal growth as an expert in your area of IT specialization with a defined skill set.

Find Your Happy Medium

To me, it has become obvious that we shouldn’t be building teams and departments with priorities at the extremes: embedded or siloed. Because technology evolves, and because business problems arise unexpectedly that demand discrete solutions and highly specialized problem solvers, there is no permanent “perfect world.” It is okay to allow your departmental personnel to stay focused and within their silos because of the benefits we’ve addressed, just know that you may need to periodically recommit to departmental embedding if you find departments becoming too insulated. 

The inverse is also true. If the proper push-vs.-pull for your specific company is to keep the IT team generally embedded across the entire company, you may need to lean on external resources and expertise to periodically plug in and address the highly technical problem or opportunity that is beyond the expertise of your full-time personnel.

It’s not that silos are bad. It’s that too often we allow the company to organically evolve into a number of disconnected departments operating simultaneously but not synchronously. That kind of silo-ization is, in fact, bad.

And it’s not that everyone in the company needs to be embedded into everyone else’s business, either. Too much cross-departmental fluidity can result in chaos and counterproductive competition of priorities.

Somewhere in the middle lies the best of both worlds. It’s up to each of us to explore that dynamic and identify the proper balance for our own organizations, our own growth objectives, and our own visions for the future—both departmental leader and IT specialist alike.

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