In a business context, the word “silo” almost always carries a negative meaning. It’s typically used to describe a department that is working separately from other departments, in much the same way that grain silos are designed to keep their contents separate.
But a grain silo is supposed to provide separation. If it allowed wheat to mix with barley, it wouldn’t be a very good silo.
Likewise, departments are supposed to have some separation of duties. HR people aren’t supposed to track invoices. Finance people aren’t supposed to write ad copy. But those are pretty black and white. Here’s a tougher example:
In larger companies that have Product and Development departments, developers aren’t supposed to decide what the product does. This is technically part of the product manager role because the product manager is in touch with customers and understands their wants and needs. Developers are supposed to decide how the product does what it does. And yet, the reality is that the how sometimes influences the what. In this case, the developer shouldn’t dictate the what. That would be an example of how a silo is bad. He should present options that the product manager can work with. That would be an example how a silo is good.
People need well-defined roles to excel at their jobs. I’ve always thought this was one of the more valuable things a manager could do for his/her employees – be clear about what the job is and reinforce it often.
Silos are good when they provide clear direction about roles. They are bad only when communication between and across departments isn’t part of the role.
So the next time you hear someone complain about how their company is too “siloed,” withhold your sympathy long enough to ask for an example. You’ll often discover that people are simply trying to honor the boundaries of their roles.