Fighting the Farmers

Silos are a common means by which farmers store the grain they have harvested until it can be taken to market. While silos make sense in agriculture, why are they so prevalent in non-agricultural organizations? Nearly every business has farmers or systems that gather and hoard data in information silos that are impenetrable for those outside that particular farm. This happens even though it is commonly understood that these silos hamper rather than enhance the efficient running of a business.  So in marches KM on a mission to “break down silos” and facilitate the free flow of information. However, knowledge management alone may not be enough since much depends on the tools chosen and on the execution.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, may I direct your attention to the following items:

The Tools You Choose Can Exacerbate the Problem: Tom Vander Wal recently reported on the sad plight of several organizations that had deployed Microsoft SharePoint in the hope that it would facilitate knowledge sharing.  Instead, this is what happened as a result of the tool they chose:

Many who deployed SharePoint, thought it was going to be the bridge that delivered Enterprise 2.0 and a solid platform for social tools in the enterprise is summed up statement, “We went from 5 silos in our organization to hundreds in a month after deploying SharePoint”. They continue, “There is great information being shared and flowing into the system, but we don’t know it exists, nor can we easily share it, nor do much of anything with that information.” I heard this from an organization about 2 years ago in a private meeting and have been hearing near similar statements since. This is completely counter to the Enterprise 2.0 hopes and wishes they had for SharePoint. They were of the mindset that open sharing & having the organization and individuals benefit from a social platform.


There is much frustration and anger being shared as people try to resolve how to share information between groups and easily merge and openly share information once it has been vetted. … One of the largest complaints is the information is locked in SharePoint micro-silos and it is nearly impossible to easily reuse that information and share it. Not only is the information difficult to get at by people desiring to collaborate outside the group or across groups, but it is not easily unlocked so that it can benefit from found in search. The Microsoft SharePoint model is one that starts with things locked down (focussed on hierarchies) then opens up, but unlocking is nowhere near as easy a task as it should be.

The Way You Execute Can Create New Problems: In 2004 the US Office of Management and Budget identified several functions or “lines of business” of government that could be rationalized across agencies by using technology to cut costs and improve service.  At one point, the OMB estimated that the lines of business initiative could “save as much as $5 billion over 10 years by consolidating systems and functions just in the financial and human resources lines of business.”  Yet in the estimation of even one of its strongest proponents, the project (styled at first as primarily an IT initiative) did not sufficiently take account of the people and politics involved.  The final nail in the coffin was the reality of underfunding of the project by Congress.  The result was summed up by Vivek Kundra, the new Federal Chief Information Officer, in the following way:

Many of those initiatives, he said, attempted to break down the vertical technology silos that evolved across government but ultimately resulted in horizontal, cross-agency silos, such as the Lines of Business initiatives that began in 2004.

Horizontal silos!  Are those any better than the earlier vertical silos?  And yet this is a mess made by people who were trying in good faith to break down silos.

Bad tools and poor execution can result in even more balkanized data and technology if we aren’t careful.  Clearly, if we’re serious about fighting the information and technology silos, we’re also going to have to be more strategic in the way we fight the farmers that build them.

[Photo Credit:  Bob Jagendorf]