Business

Boxed in: Do you talk to your colleagues enough?

Businesspeople peering over cubicle walls Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Are we increasingly inter-connected, or actually more fragmented at work?

It may seem paradoxical but in age when we are more connected than ever, via smart phones and 24/7 internet connections our workplaces and businesses risk becoming increasingly fragmented.

It's all to do with expertise. Now expertise within a business is taken to be a 'good thing', yet it can also become a problem if, say, one group of workers is not sharing key knowledge and skills with other teams.

Firms are often aware of this and are forever emphasising the need for teamwork. Yet, says the Financial Times' Gillian Tett, structural and other obstacles often crop up.

"What tends to happen in corporations is they start out small and they are very freewheeling and creative and everyone is united around a common mission.

"As they become bigger, they become more bureaucratic and people become subdivided into departments or 'tribes'," she tells BBC World Service's In the Balance programme.

People end up in their own little silos - places where specialist knowledge gets locked away or hoarded by individuals or teams.

Tunnel vision

The reason this happens is understandable. If knowledge is power, then if you know something your colleagues don't, it increases your value within an organisation.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The 2008 global banking crisis was down to the 'silo effect, many argue

The problem isn't just that Department A doesn't talk to Department B, so staff don't know one another, these subdivisions can get in the way of people actually doing their jobs properly.

The dangers aren't just theoretical, workers become beset by tunnel vision and "bright people end up doing really dumb things," says Ms Tett.

Many argue that the 2008 global bank crisis and subsequent economic slowdown was down to the so-called "silo-effect" of people not knowing what others were doing.

It's a point of view which former Bank of England deputy governor Sir Paul Tucker has some sympathy with.

"There was fragmentation in banks, central banks, universities and in newspapers - where the finance people were in one corner, the economic people in another and perhaps on another floor.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "Bright people end up doing really dumb things," says Gillian Tett

"They didn't know enough about each other's world; they didn't care enough about each other's world.

"It was incumbent upon us management to connect the dots, and we didn't do enough of that."

The real challenge is for firms and organisations to embed lessons learnt during the crisis "so they don't get forgotten", he says.

Disjointed thinking

More recently, Volkswagen's emissions scandal is another disaster which has arisen from a lack of joined-up thinking, says Ms Tett.

"People were so beset by mental and structural silos, that they got trapped in this tunnel vision and they couldn't take a commonsense view of what was going on."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Volkswagen's emissions scandal is one example of a lack of joined-up thinking

Karl Ludvigsen, who was vice president of Ford Europe in the 1980s, agrees that the motor industry is beset with issues arising from silos. The result, he says, is endless headaches for customers.

"Any dealership you go into has a sales, services, used-car and a finance department. These are all silos - each can use the problems of the others to say the finance guy didn't do his job or the used cars haven't come in this week."

Sony stumbles

Gillian Tett clear is that the risks with silos go beyond not feeling relaxed enough to chat at the water-cooler. If they get in the way of creativity and innovation in a company, then it's in trouble.

In her book, The Silo Effect, she highlights how Japan's consumer electronics giant Sony squandered the success of its Walkman music player, which had been a huge earner for the firm.

By the 1990s it had grown so large that a new boss broke it down into 25 sub-divisions. This worked and profits rose and efficiency improved, but it came at a huge price.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Many firms deliberately try to break down barriers to boost creativity and innovation.

Internal competition halted collaboration and innovation slowed. Sony failed to adapt its Walkman for the digital era, because the different teams produced several players instead of just one.

"They couldn't collaborate and they ended up basically killing each other off," says Ms Tett.

Then along came Steve Jobs and the iPod and the rest, as they say, is profit-and-loss history.

'It's hard to fight'

It's a lesson that is not lost on today's tech industry - where firms are trying to institutionalise the breaking down of barriers to boost creativity and innovation.

At Facebook, for example, staff are constantly rotated between different teams and it runs all night hackathons that require computer engineers to work with new teams of people.

It has also tried to use the architecture of its buildings to increase the chances of people bumping into one another - corridors and lifts are expected to be social spaces.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Sony failed to capitalise on the success of its iconic Walkman

Given no one team can know everything a business needs for its survival, the trick is to get the balance right.

The US-based author and business adviser Alvin Hall spends a lot of time in corporations, trying to train people out of their silos. He says we are all hard-wired to organise the world into boxes - and then to put ourselves and our talents into them.

"I often see corporations tear down walls and create open plan spaces. At first there is some collaboration, but then you watch as the same group of people start going out to lunch together, every day.

"It's human nature and it's hard to fight."

Perhaps the first step to defeating the silo mentality at work, is to recognise that many of us are already in them.

You can download the podcast for more on this and other editions of In the Balance here.

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