During World War I, a British General was touring the front lines when he noticed that each field artillery crew had two extra men who seemed to have no specific job to do. He asked why each crew had these apparently useless soldiers and was told their job was to “hold the horses still” when the guns fired—thus preventing the horses from getting startled and hurting themselves. The problem was that the guns hadn’t been pulled around by horses in years. There wasn’t a horse in sight. The “horse holders” were still on duty, though.
This famous military anecdote, amusing as it might be, can tell us a lot about how organizations (don’t) change their ways even as processes and technology evolve. One example of this is what we call an “organizational silo.” They are quite common, even in relatively well-run businesses. Silos are costly, though, in productivity terms. Advances in technology now make it possible to tear them down.
What is an Organizational Silo?
The term “silo” refers to a self-contained group of people and their work processes. Some companies call this phenomenon a “stove pipe.” The idea is the same. Like a grain silo that stands alone in a field or a stove pipe that goes up and out through the roof without touching anything else, an organizational silo does what it does, without much regard for anyone else. They have “always done things this way,” like the soldiers assigned to hold onto horses who were no longer on the battlefield.
One of the great ironies of the last generation in business has been its tendency to transpose silo-like behavior onto new technologies that were meant to make things run more efficiently. Thus, if the billing department’s job was to generate invoices in triplicate and turn over the pink copies to the general ledger clerk for manual entry into the books, they may continue to perform much the same process in digital form.
The billing department might now use its own software to create the bills. Then, they send a .csv file of billing information to the accounting department so it can be manually loaded into the general ledger software. The paper is gone, but the organizational silos still persevere in their inefficient workflows.
How Organizational Silos Affect Business Operations
Organizational silos are not good for business. They tend to make things more complicated and expensive than they need to be. More work steps and repetitive processes mean more person-hours, which keeps overhead high. Splitting workflows between silos also makes the whole process more error-prone.
Tearing Down Organizational Silos
It is possible to tear down organizational silos. The process involves addressing three core issues that arise with silos. First, it’s essential to deal with the organizational aspects of the situation. People have to understand that there is going to be a change in the way things get done. This, of all the steps in tearing the silo down, may be the hardest. There’s a lot of horse holders out there. Then it’s necessary to devise a new, streamlined workflow. This step mixes technology and people. People have to buy into the new way of working. Then, there’s the technology itself.
In tech terms, tearing down silos is a matter of software. One approach is to put all the silos onto the same software, where workflows can move more efficiently between previously separate groups. Another way to achieve the same goal is to adopt software that functions as a connector between separate applications. This may be necessary if it’s too complex to change the software in use by one team, such as invoicing or travel expense management.
Wipfli LLP/Brittenford has create software integrations that enable you to tear down organizational silos. These tools integrate accounting software with Travel & Expense Management, Invoice Management, Student Management, Tuition Payment Systems, CRM and so forth. The connectors can even form the basis for an application ecosystem. Contact us for a free consultation.