Time to Reevaluate Expectations for Breaking Down Business Silos

September 10, 2019

By Matthew Schwartz

Viktoria Kurpas/Shutterstock.com

Dateline 2040. Welcome to Google News Live. Here are some of the headlines. President Ariana Grande unveiled the next generation of hover buses. Smellivision just got tastier. Tom Brady calls it quits as head coach of the New England Patriots — he's tired of the losing. And at the 15th annual "Eliminating Business Silos" Summit in Davos, corporate chieftains bemoan their inability to break down business departments and effectively integrate their organizations. Again.

The fictionalized news flash above may seem far-fetched. But is it? If recent history regarding the alleged elimination of business silos is any indication, companies will be wrestling with the problem well into the future.

The reality is that, with the exception of a handful of forward-thinking companies, most brands are no closer to legitimately breaking down silos now than in the early 2000s, when "busting silos" moved to the core.

Teamwork has resided at the top of the corporate agenda ever since, regardless of the business sector. The benefits of collaboration have been well documented, including a recent Harvard Business Review article stating that employees who reach outside their silos to find colleagues with complementary expertise "learn more, sell more, and gain skills faster."

The marketing and advertising industries, of course, are awash with conferences focusing on breaking down silos and how CMOs and marketing directors can be agents of change.

At the 2019 ANA Chicago Nonprofit Conference late last month, for example, breaking down silos was a major topic of conversation. In fact, there was one session dedicated exclusively to the issue, titled "Break Down Org Silos, Prioritize Your Supporters' Experience."

Yet despite the constant drumbeating — not to mention encouragement from the C-suite for more cohesion throughout the organization — silos are a recurring issue. Call it Groundhog Day for corporate America, or the marketing equivalent of Waiting for Godot.

To be sure, many brand managers have expanded their horizon the last several years in order to get a more comprehensive view of their organizations and align marketing activities with the company's overall goals. But there are miles to go.

Perhaps the argument regarding why breaking down business silos is imperative needs a course correction. The general pitch from upper management currently revolves around disparate departments working together for the "greater good," in which everybody wins (at least on paper).

But what many companies may be reluctant to admit is that the greater good pales in comparison to ego, short-term thinking, and politics that most companies suffer to one degree or another. Painful as it may be, companies need to confront these issues.

As currently constructed, efforts to bust silos are likely to fail, and brands need to deal with that. While strategic marketing is often couched in "how-to" terms these days, the existing lessons for breaking down silos are well past their expiration date. There are no more lessons learned.

Organizations need to change the narrative. Breaking down business silos should not be sold in a vacuum, but rather pegged to specific outcomes and/or projects. How do companies expect to leverage AI, augmented reality, and other as-yet-unnamed technologies impacting business processes if they can't integrate their teams with a modicum of success?

Maybe a clearer path is not to break the silos, but bend them, as Joe Hirsch posits in The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change.

If companies continue to insist on breaking down business silos wholesale, the mandate may prove counterproductive (if it hasn't already).

And while it may be considered somewhat heretic, to truly push the needle on breaking down silos senior managers may need to reconfigure their financial incentives, compensation, and bonus structure for those employees designated to drive change.

After all, constantly kibitzing about the greater good may inspire some employees. But a carrot-and-stick approach to breaking down silos might lead most employees to take action and, perhaps more important, to appreciate that integration doesn't have to be a wasted exercise.


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