(Guest post by Hessie Jones, CEO of ArCompany)

For years I’ve worked in siloed environments. I’m sure we all have.  The bigger the organization, the more prevalent the silos. I looked up this definition today.

1. a pit, trench, horizontal container, or tower, often cylindrical in shape, in which silage is made and stored

2. a strengthened underground position in which missile systems are sited for protection against attack

The second definition seems most fitting when we are referring to organizations. The strength of one department comes from having a shared purpose that allows each person to feel they are contributing to that common goal.  When everyone is aligned it’s an amazing feeling. There’s nothing stopping you from taking over the world…so to speak.

This shared purpose is the reason that teams, or clubs are successful at maintaining membership. They have a common goal, a common motivation that keeps the group tighter than ever, and the goal becomes that much more attainable.

In marketing we call these groups of people “clusters”. These people have specific traits, common among them, that allow marketers to group them together naturally. These traits are not just any traits. They are so strong that it tends to naturally allow a separation from those who don’t exhibit those traits (either naturally or through influential experiences). And now back to silos… When we speak about shared values, the approach is awesome because everyone buys in and everyone is moving towards the same goal.

However, within organizations, silos are ­those long cylindrical shaped containers… those impenetrable  “underground positions”, so tall that no one outside is invited in, nor allowed to look inside.

Awesome silos

I used to work at a bank. I worked in the Credit Card Division of a prestigious bank. I was part of an emerging group, started in the early 2000 to figure out how to leverage the Internet to drive acquisition and retention opportunities. We were green. No one had any real experience on the web. Who did? We did, however, have this shared excitement about the possibilities we could muster for this organization.

This enthusiasm resulted in endless hours of ideation, testing and discovery. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my lifetime. We all clicked, we came together to share what we discovered. When it was time, brought in the product groups to understand the processes they built in to run their existing programs.

As a first step, the goal was to weave in those expectations and requirements to the web. After a few months we were  ready to scope out implementation of this program.

When silos collide

We had presented our ideas and approach to the Executive Team in our division. It was met with glowing comments and a resounding approval to begin the process of developing the capabilities.  That’s when we approached the central team in the bank: The online banking division. If anything needed implementing, final approvals had to come from this group. Needless to say it turned out to be a harrowing process. Countless meetings were had to scrutinize the approach for the build.

The central team was concerned about compliance, security, concern over third-party sites that needed to be part of this integration.  We anticipated this and had appropriate run contingency scenarios through our own division’s Portfolio Management team. We answered all their questions but more questions came. Months went by before they were fully satisfied that this initiative was even feasible. The realization that this might not even happen came when we realized that prioritization for this initiative still needed to be negotiated.

Despite the Executive approval, other divisions were given priority. We were left in the “queue” until there was significant reason to push this initiative closer to the front of the line. Suddenly, the very organization –family (in loose terms) – failed us.  It widened the rift that already existed between our divisions This article synthesized this experience:

When employees interact poorly with people outside of their “silo,” it becomes difficult to do the work of the business. A tight-knit department that works well together can be a plus for a business. However, organizational silos can be like fortresses within a company and eventually cause serious problems that might not be noticed until the damage is done.

Silos exist to move things forward

“The bigger they are the harder they fall”.

Once you have people bought in to an idea, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to undo it. Our department bought into this initiative. It was welcomed with open arms from our Executive Team. Everyone thought it was a plausible initiative to pursue. Except for the Central Online Banking Team. So, was that going to stop us? We realized the additional effort to move this ball forward would take months. We had to play “nice” and we had to somehow use some leverage to buy us priority over other initiatives. It just wasn’t the answer.

So we built the initiative ourselves. Our division put together our own development team to create a short-term solution that would allow us to test and learn and create a jump-start in the financial services industry where our competitors were not doing any kind of testing in this regard. We needed to be ahead of the game.

We built the system within the support of the Executive Team and within 6 months had a working system to properly receive, track and measure online initiatives.  We were able to gauge some quick wins and build a system that functioned efficiently and was able to be built alongside the changes that were happening in online advertising at the time. We were not as “agile” but we tried to be.

It made us happy. But in the process, it also made us more distrusting of the central bank. As a division we became more insular and automatically distrustful and suspicious of outsiders.

Separate silos can’t co-exist

Eventually the very system we created for our division was implemented by the central team.  By this time, I had long left the bank. It had taken a few years. In the meantime our division held our ground and did what we could to push our shared goal forward.

For banks, it does seem like a daunting and almost impossible task to allow those overall goals to filter down to the very edges of the organization so everyone buys into them and embraces them.

I did not stick around to see this happen.  I didn’t have the patience to do so.

While, I wasn’t able to move mountains when I was there, I was able to introduce ideas that made people think differently. I was able to convince people over time that this would increase opportunities, and provide efficiencies over time.

The amazing trust that existed within our division made us stronger but separated us from the overall bank.

I’m hopeful that these silos will break down. My fear is that it will be the direct result of forced downsizing, and structural changes. Only then will companies be in a position to think differently.

Author Bio:

Hessie Jones is CEO at ArCompany, and a seasoned digital strategist having held management positions for top Ad Agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience with launch successes like Yahoo! Answers. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also an active writer for Huffington Post, and Steamfeed.

Image via Nathan Harper under C.C.2.0