The Silo Effect

The Silo Effect
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The following is a book review by Flt Lt Jane Pickersgill.

The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers – By Gillian Tett

The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett“The engineers were mostly trained in the same set of computer skills and were in their twenties or early thirties.  Most wore a common “uniform,” sneakers and jeans, and had a similar outlook on life. That made it easier to foster a common group identity and break down silos inside the company. Moving the engineers between teams was not so hard, because they were so similar. But as the employees inside Facebook became defined as a social group, with a sense of their own identity, this created a new risk: in the future the company could end up acting like a gigantic social silo of its own. To anyone outside the tech world, it was almost impossible to understand exactly what computer engineers at places such as Facebook did. The algorithms were as impenetrable as financial jargon. And the techies sometimes lost perspective of what outsiders thought of them.”

Sound familiar?  To anyone in the military, it should do!  If you have shown your family around an aeroplane or ship and tried to simplify the complex technology and procedures that make up your daily life, it should do!  To those of us who have navigated the often-fraught online world of JPA or Dii, found themselves in a world of TLAs and JSPs, and to those who have worked for the JFC in the CAOC as part of J3…you get my point.  The military world, with its jargon, slang, abbreviations and complex technologies is often equally as impenetrable to an outsider as financial jargon to the non-economists or computer engineering to those outside Facebook.  The civilian-military divide is significant, and although some fantastic bridges are being built for those veterans transitioning out of the military into their new civilian worlds, there has been little work done on the value of sharing best practice across the divide whilst still in the Services.

Tett’s book examines one key goal of the MLC – seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  As she says later in the book:

Change does not always need to involve a dramatic switch in career. We can temporarily jump into a different world by changing the information and news we consume, moving our location, talking to different people and trying to imagine how life might look through their eyes. “I think we need to do a mental exercise sometimes, and imagine that we are at the optician’s, with those old-fashioned eye frames that they used to drop different lens into,” suggests Bob Steel, the former deputy mayor of New York. “I sometimes try to imagine slotting a different lens into my glasses and asking what I would see.”

Silos (or self-contained buckets of expertise) she says, can be the cause of many problems within companies and also between companies.  They prevent effective sharing of ideas, often resulting in teams working entirely independently of each other, generating wasted effort, but more importantly, missing opportunities for development and growth.  One example she gives to show the negative effect of silos is the tech giant Sony, who fell victim to silos and was overtaken in the markets by Apple and Amazon as a result.  Over the years, Sony had produced more than 1000 gadgets, “many of which operated on separate, proprietary technologies”.  One company executive complained that he had 35 Sony devices at home, and 35 unique battery chargers!

However, silos can be useful to create order in extremely complex areas, to generate autonomy and accountability – an airbase cannot be effective if every engineer is trying to fix the same aircraft.  The key is to recognize where the silos are, what utility they bring, and what their associated risks and limitations are.  Silos are important, especially in the (necessarily) hierarchical military environment, but so is the ability to jump across into someone else’s silo and cross-pollinate ideas and techniques.

Although focused primarily on the financial sector after the banking crisis in 2007-2008, this book has tremendous value for anyone seeking to develop themselves as a military leader.  How can you take and create opportunities for “social collisions” with people from other silos?  What benefits can be gained for your own office, Squadron, base, or Company?  One final quote:

“Ambitious individuals in every field need to close their laptops, get out of their chairs, and take trips to explore new places and meet people who are doing things differently. Above all, we need to leave ourselves open to collisions with people and ideas outside whatever silo we inhabit. If we make space in our lives to collide with the unexpected, we often end up changing our cultural lens.”

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