In her book The Silo Effect, anthropologist Gillian Tett talks about the human need for structure and an ability to break complicated things down to a level where they are easier to understand.
This need manifested itself organisationally during the 20th century. As the size and scale of organisations grew immensely, managers began to structure them into silos, usually based around professional expertise (e.g. engineering, accounts, sales) or by product category.
Breaking a large organisation down into divisions, directorates, departments or individual teams, makes it easier to comprehend the outcomes people are working towards and to develop the specialist capabilities that enable differentiation.
But whilst silos make teams more productive in their own domains, they also result in silo thinking – a condition where group-think and confirmation bias can easily take hold.
This limits people from seeing different perspectives or working effectively with teams from other parts of the organisation. A major problem, especially if you are trying to change the direction of the business to keep pace with change.
Clearly there is a delicate balance required between the specialisation benefits of silos and the communications disadvantages they cause. Break the silos down too far and you are left with a deeply homogeneous organisation of generalists, where no-one knows what they are responsible for; but let the silos go too far and you have different parts of the business pulling in different directions, sending mixed messages to customers and damaging the brand.
One way to manage the Silo Effect
One approach for maintaining a silo balance is to increase the support given to the people whose work goes across silos, those who act as connectors and translators (of silo-specific language and culture) – These are the ‘Integrators’.
Back in the 1960s, Harvard Business Review wrote about the pain businesses were beginning to notice, as the pace of technological change and product innovation increased.
The big hierarchical organisations of the 1950s and 60s were having to deal with more rapid change and needed to align the work of their divisions; especially in terms of research and development, where the scientific approach would clash with the output culture of production and marketing departments.
Until this point, it was the task of the GM (General Manager) to align different departments, but now the pace of change required alignment and decision-making at the operational level. HBR labelled the operational people (such as product managers, brand managers, project leaders, systems designers, planning directors) who were working across silos as ‘Integrators’.
Today the pace of change has accelerated many times beyond that witnessed when the HBR article was first published and the role of the ‘Integrator’ is vital for any organisation to survive and progress.
The role of the Integrator
At different points in my career, I’ve sat amongst teams of developers, accountants, sales, marketers and product people. Each of these teams had their own areas of expertise and specialisation, and they also had their own cultures, business-language and approaches to work.
You can imagine the cliché typecast. Developers in jeans and t-shirts, who prefer to start work late and focus on code quality; sales people in sharp suits, who start early and focus on deadlines and revenue, accountants in the back-office who quietly balance the books and like everything to fit neatly into nice numerical boxes.
Of course, these are only clichés and it would be wrong to say everyone fitted their cliché, but even from this brief description it’s possible to see the conflicts that can arise when different teams need to work with each other to achieve an outcome.
This is where the Integrator provides maximum value.
Somebody who can bridge the communications and cultural gap between the different teams, who can connect Bob in Sales with Janet in IT to agree a deadline, who can arbitrate between Marketing and Accounts, who can see the big picture and help convey this to individuals and who can provide leadership, but with little or no authority.
Whilst these individuals don’t tend to have the word ‘Integrator’ in their job title, they are generally in the same sorts of roles that the HBR article originally highlighted.
Product Managers are a good example of an Integrator. When a business launches a new product to the market, it requires cross-organisational collaboration and the Product Manager is responsible for motivating different parts of the organisation (each with their own priorities) to re-direct their resource to focus on the launch plans.
Product Managers have little authority over other departments and instead have to provide a powerful vision that people can buy into, rely on their empathy and influencing skills and navigate internal company politics.
This is leadership in its truest sense and not an easy role to fulfil, but without the Product Manager driving the change, the organisation will struggle to launch new propositions that customers actually want.
Supporting the Integrators in your organisation
The nature of their jobs (such as the PM above) means many people naturally fall into the role of Integrator. This does not automatically mean they will be successful in their integration efforts and to maximise the benefits, organisations need to intentionally design the way Integrators are supported to carry out their jobs.
Here are some recommendations:
Recognition and leadership backing
A good starting point is to recognise the importance of the unsung heroes in your organisation who take on take on the integration challenge. The role of Integrator can often be a lonely and difficult place, never quite ‘becoming part of’ one team or another and having to deal with stressful stakeholder situations.
Simple recognition of this fact by senior leaders really helps to ensure people don’t feel they are alone on the journey or that their efforts are unappreciated.
Senior leaders can also step up to help Integrators by providing clear and public backing of the projects that Integrators are working and be willing to step in to help persuade department leads to participate.
Clear and focused goals
Related to the above is the need for clear and focused strategic goals to be communicated by senior leaders, which the Integrators can use to flesh out delivery strategies with their stakeholders.
A vital part of this is for the goals to complement each other, as all too often contradictory goals are set (such as improving customer service, whilst cutting costs) and without a clear focus, departments are left in confusion about the route they should take.
Training, mentoring and career development
In addition to leadership support, Integrators should be equipped with the knowledge and skills that will help them bring about change. This should be a mixture of soft skills and technical capabilities, which the Integrators can use to create compelling visions and gain technical authority in places where they lack managerial authority.
Career development is vital to keep Integrators onboard and motivated (after all these could be your future leaders), so a development and training plan is a really important part of the package. Further support should be provided by a mentor who can help an Integrator plan their development roadmap, be available to bounce ideas off for decision making and provide reassurance during stressful times.
Operational blocker removal
Finally, nothing thwarts energy and motivation quite like the endless battles of red tape bureaucracy. If your Integrators are spending half their time filling in forms or chasing progress on relatively minor issues, then they are wasting precious time and energy that would be better spent co-creating a powerful vision with stakeholders, speaking to customers or agreeing product specifications.
Red tape is feature of big organisations that will always exist, so accept it is going to happen and assign your Integrators an assistant with the expertise and temperament to fight the red tape battles on their behalf.
A perennial challenge (or opportunity)
Consider this quote from the original HBR article:
The important point is that in the future more organisations will be operating in rapidly changing environments, and the problem for managers will be to make certain that this integrative function is effectively carried out. In order to do this, they will need to learn how to select, train, organise, supervise and control these new integrators.
This article was written in 1967 and the world is now a much more dynamic and faster-paced place to live. At work, the need to balance the specialist skills that enable differentiation with the ability to tightly integrate different organisational units is more important than ever – and unlikely to go away soon.
Organisations that can integrate well are the ones that can move with agility, bring new propositions to market faster and adapt to changing conditions easier. Integration is a core competitive strength and one of the best ways to achieve this is to develop highly-skilled and versatile Integrators.
This is the original 1967 HBR article that introduced the role of the Integrator. Interestlingly, many of the issues then still apply today – perennial problems – and if you were not aware of the publishing date, it would be easy to assume the article was only published in recent years.
BCG talks about the new role of managers in agile organisations being the Integrators and uses the example of a Product Owner working with an agile team to show how Integrators must influence where they don’t have line management authority.
Anthropologist and Financial Times writer Gillian Tett looks at the way humans organise themselves and information into silos to make sense of the world. Whilst there are benefits to silos, they also have major drawbacks and with this in mind, forward-thinking organisations have been able to disrupt themselves and gain a competitive advantage. A recommended read for anyone involved in transformational business.