Why Silos Don’t Break Down So Easily

Workers like their routines, and don't have much faith in their coworkers, according to a recent survey. If leaders want cross-functional activity, they'll have to make the case for it—and nix the useless meetings.

CEOs are encouraged to bust silos so often you’d think half their job is driving bulldozers over grain farms. Employees must learn to work with different departments in cross-functional teams! Lack of institutional awareness throughout the org chart leads to inefficiencies and confusion!

Fifty-six percent of respondents say lack of communication is the biggest source of conflict with other departments and teams.

All true, and that’s why the no-silo dream is a compelling one for executives. But there are a couple of problems with the dream: Your people probably like their silos, and they’re often not working in an environment where they can easily get out of them anyhow.

That’s one of the conclusions to draw from The State of Work: 2018-2019 Edition, a recent study published by the enterprise technology firm Workfront. The report, based on a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. employees at large companies who work on a computer and do collaborative work, shows a workplace that’s straining to get its regular tasks done and doesn’t have much of an appetite for cross-functional anything. Consider a few of the findings:

  • 58 percent of respondents report being “so swamped with getting day-to-day work done that they don’t have time to think beyond their daily to-do list.”
  • 40 percent report that they spend less than half of their workday on primary tasks.
  • While 86 percent say they clearly understand their own job duties, 42 percent say they don’t have a clear idea of what their colleagues are working on.
  • Indeed, we don’t have a lot of trust in our colleagues: Asked to rate their colleagues on a five-star scale a la Uber, the average rating is 3.7.
  • A fifth of employees (21 percent) say fewer meetings would be the biggest thing to help them be more productive. But only a paltry 10 percent see the benefit of a “central place to see all the work my team is doing.”

Plainly, a sizable chunk of the workforce has little faith in the notion that working cross-functionally can make their jobs more efficient. The reason for that may relate to another interesting data point in the Workfront survey: Thirty-eight percent of respondents say, “I never know what my company’s top priorities are and how my work ties into them.” That’s a lot of people showing up for work every day but not knowing why, beyond their daily tasks.

And it speaks to a communication problem: If you as an executive aren’t explaining what the strategic purpose of an effort is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that workers are loath to step out of their bubbles, and that they treat their coworkers like rideshares that reek of cigarettes with seats coated in Cheeto dust.

But all is not lost. The study shows that people don’t hate meetings, just the wasteful ones, and they say they spend more time in the productive kind. Part of improving that sense of being productive can involve what association consultant Jamie Notter calls “explaining the why”—pointing out what counts as success for an organization, and underscoring why collaboration gets the organization closer to it. “If it’s a bigger group, senior managers tend to get laser focused on what works for them and end up leaving money on the table, because they’re not realizing the ways that they should be collaborating,” Notter told me earlier this year. “And they don’t see the impact it’s having on success.”

That kind of communication isn’t a small thing. Fifty-six percent of the Workfront survey respondents say “lack of communication” is the biggest source of conflict with other departments and teams. Associations can get used to doing things in particular ways, so it might be worth thinking about what routines are keeping new ideas from being heard.

There’s a lot of talk about automation in the Workfront study, and a sizable number of respondents (44 percent) see automation as an opportunity to engage in more strategic work. But automating processes is just one part of getting those silos knocked down. The other part, and arguably the bigger part, will be the leader making a clear case for why employees need to help with the knocking down.

How do you communicate strategic objectives to your employees, especially when it comes to cross-functional efforts? Share your experiences in the comments.

(antpkr/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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