How to break down silos and fuel cross-functional collaboration

Replace rigid hierarchies with fluid talent management strategies

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By Nicole Schreiber-Shearer, Future of Work Specialist at Gloat

September 19, 2022

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When it comes to farming, silos are essential. The structures are almost impossible to penetrate, which means they’re great for protecting grain. However, silos in the workplace aren’t nearly as beneficial. Many departments fall into the same trap: teams hoard information and develop their own ways of communicating and collaborating with colleagues.

While that might initially seem harmless, over time it makes it difficult for employees outside a given group to access the information they need and stunts collaboration across the company. And as skill gaps are widening and talent shortages are reaching a tipping point, no organization can afford to leave any shred of knowledge untapped.

Instead, businesses must harness all of their workforce’s skills to bring the next generation of game-changing innovations to life. While that won’t be possible with a “silo mentality”, leaders who learn how to break down barriers will open the door for next-level accomplishments in the new world of work.

What do silos in the workplace look like?

Silos in the workplace are so common that they might be hard to recognize at first. Generally, silos happen when teams or departments rely solely on employees within the group, with very limited opportunities for input from others.

Although being self-sufficient has its advantages, failing to keep colleagues in the loop can spell trouble down the line. Over time, people who aren’t directly involved in a specific project might miss out on the knowledge that their peers are building up. These employees won’t know what’s going on, so they can’t jump in to help, come up with innovative ideas or solutions that require access to the siloed knowledge, or pick up where their colleagues left off.

Silos never start out as a big problem. Usually, they begin with something simple, like keeping the details of an upcoming project between a few employees. Yet, if the information isn’t shared and other colleagues aren’t brought up to speed, silos can quickly snowball into a work culture that doesn’t foster collaboration or information sharing.

The high cost of organizational silos

Although organizational silos start off as a small problem, it rarely stays that way. Over time, a siloed mentality can destroy employee trust levels, cut off communication, and foster complacency within the workplace.

The three main disadvantages associated with organizational silos include:

  1. Miscommunications rise 
    When employees fail to interact with colleagues outside of their specific department or project group, there’s a real risk that information will be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The longer a project remains siloed within one department, the greater the likelihood that information relating to it will eventually be miscommunicated to relevant stakeholders outside of the group.
  2. Resistance to change sets in
    Within the silo, employees may enjoy the way they work and their collaboration processes. Eventually, these team members might become resistant to policies that break from the status quo that their silo has created. They might even come to view their colleagues outside of their silo as outsiders.
  3. Cross-functional collaboration nosedives 
    As employees grow accustomed to working with others who share their silo, they may miss out on opportunities to experience different working styles and communication preferences. They may not get the opportunity to participate in different types of workflows, which will make cross-departmental collaboration more challenging and ultimately hurt bottom lines.

Why it pays to replace silos with cross-functional collaboration

While many leaders recognize that silos can be costly, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it takes to break down barriers and fuel more effective communication. Generally, businesses that prioritize cross-functional collaboration and networked teams come out ahead of competitors that rely on more rigid job hierarchies.

In fact, cross-functional collaboration is linked with the following advantages:

  • Enhanced productivity
    When employees work together, they can pool their talents and strengths to expand skill sets and learn from one another, in turn hastening efficiency.
  • Greater innovation
    Selecting teams with a range of disciplines and skill levels can strengthen performance. Varied backgrounds and diverse ideas result in creative problem-solving while increasing the probability of a more innovative work atmosphere.
  • Better connections
    Cross-functional collaboration gives employees more of a chance to understand how others perceive a situation and work together to overcome mutual challenges.
  • Strengthen communication
    Working cross-functionally is an effective way to minimize ambiguity and reduce the likelihood of miscommunications. Everyone becomes familiar with key concepts so the risk of misunderstanding something is much lower.

4 steps leaders can take to break down silos

Silos aren’t built overnight, and naturally, they can’t be broken down instantaneously either. Instead, businesses must embrace new frameworks and next-generation technologies to power cross-functional collaboration and knowledge sharing. Some important steps for leaders to take include:

#1. Prioritize talent sharing, not hoarding
The days of relying on a few all-star employees to accomplish every single deliverable are over. While tapping into the same group of high performers might feel like the most efficient way to meet deadlines, it’s not doing your workforce any favors. When managers fail to look outside of their immediate teams, they allow silos to build by overlooking talented employees with the skills needed to carry out key tasks.

To stop segmentation in its tracks, managers must have a full picture of the skills and competencies within their organization—which is exactly what a workforce agility platform offers. Once they’re able to visualize broader talent pools, managers will feel confident that they have the expertise they need to get key projects across the finish line. As talent begins moving freely across the organization, silos will be replaced with cross-functional collaboration and a culture of talent sharing.

#2. Deconstruct work into projects and gigs
Workforce pixelation is quickly going mainstream. Yesterday’s massive corporations are restructuring into smaller, flatter organizations, all while traditional jobs are being deconstructed into projects, gigs, and tasks.

In addition to unlocking agility, embracing workforce pixelation is a surefire way to minimize silos. At larger companies, it’s almost impossible for every manager to have a full picture of the capabilities within their organization. But in a pixelated workforce, leaders can understand the unique skills and experiences that every employee brings to the table and how they fit into the business-critical functions each job is associated with. They can then tap employees with relevant competencies, regardless of their role or department, to ensure crucial tasks are executed flawlessly.

#3. Encourage everyone to expand their horizons
If employees don’t have visibility into all of the opportunities within their organization, they probably won’t be motivated to break out of their silo. They might question whether it’s worth engaging in cross-skilling and re-skilling opportunities if they’re just going to keep doing the same things.

Instead of expecting your workforce to keep their blinders on and focus solely on their team’s needs, employees should be encouraged to pursue growth opportunities across the business. Career pathing tools within a workforce agility platform can help team members identify experiential development opportunities that will help them build the skills they need to take their careers to the next level.

#4. Introduce cross-functional mentoring
When executed correctly, mentoring programs represent a powerful win-win that enables employees to expand their horizons and hone their leadership skills. While virtually every type of co-learning initiative will promote knowledge-sharing within your organization, cross-functional mentorship pairings are particularly beneficial for breaking down silos.

To ensure employees get the most out of their mentoring experience, businesses are harnessing talent marketplaces within workforce agility platforms to match team members to mentors across the business with relevant expertise.

How Schneider Electric harnesses a workforce agility platform to reduce silos

When internal surveys revealed that nearly 50% of exiting employees cited a lack of internal growth opportunities as their primary reason for leaving the business, Schneider Electric recognized it was time to make a change. The organization devised a new strategy designed to break down silos and encourage people to take ownership of their career development.

To retain and engage their talent, Schneider Electric introduced a workforce agility platform that empowers employees to participate in projects and gigs across the organization that align with their personal career goals. By breaking down silos and improving cross-functional collaboration, Schneider Electric has unlocked over 360,000 hours of capacity and saved approximately $15 million in enhanced productivity and reduced recruitment costs.

Reflecting on their journey, Jean Pelletier, VP of Digital Talent Transformation, says, “What I am learning is that it’s a complete rewrite of HR. You need to think differently about speed and how you go deep and broad in an organization using AI. Gloat’s talent marketplace is an absolute game-changer.”

To learn more about what it takes to level up cross-functional collaboration, find out how workforce agility platforms replace silos with mobility.

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