Smashing data silos and clearing information bottlenecks

Laura Stack — №23 with Mike St. Pierre

Information technology has become such an integral part of modern business that its terminology has leaked into our shared jargon. For example, you may have heard the term “data silo.” Originally, it referred to data stuck in one system, platform, database, or software because it wasn’t compatible with another. Unless the IT gurus made special efforts to purchase new equipment or to patch together an interface, important data would become isolated from users or had to be re-entered, which hindered users’ ability to do their jobs and decreased their productivity.

These days, data silos usually occur when people just refuse to share data, for bureaucratic or personal reasons. This is something the IT guys usually can’t help you with. So what do you do when critical information is inaccessible?

Institutionalized stupidity

In larger organizations, information hoarding sometimes becomes institutionalized. Departments and teams lose sight of the fact that they should be working together on common organizational goals. I’ve heard horror stories of coworkers refusing to help others unless it was to their advantage or unless they received a promise for payback first—forget economies of scale.

I’ve also heard tales of military quartermasters who refused to provide much-needed equipment to soldiers, because if they did, it would disrupt their perfect organizational system. Sometimes, when you give people a little power, it goes to their heads, and they feel the need to wield it, to the detriment of the organization as a whole.

If this continues for long, it will destroy the organization as surely as a ruthless competitor would — just by dragging it down and killing productivity. It happens in organizations of all sizes. According to historian William H. Chamberlain, the Roman Empire fell at least partially due to bureaucratic infighting. In the 1980s, Brown Boveri, a prestigious Swiss engineering firm weighed down by thousands of bureaucrats, escaped bankruptcy only when it merged with Sweden’s ASEA. ASEA’s CEO ordered the Zurich-based bureaucrats to find new customer service jobs in the company within 90 days or to find work elsewhere. Three months later, the company was 3,000 bureaucrats lighter. In 2013, Forbes magazine ranked the new corporation #158 on its list of the world’s most successful companies.

When management allows (or even actively encourages) internal competition, productivity often stagnates due to hoarding of “proprietary data” and the lack of cross-fertilization that characterizes the best organizations. When you have to go hat-in-hand to a tinpot leader within the company to get what you need, things have gone seriously wrong.

Today’s post-Great Recession business reality won’t allow such companies to survive for long. Going forward, only the faster, more agile companies will thrive. That’s why Roger Perlmutter cleared out several layers of management when he took over as head of R&D at Merck Pharmaceuticals in 2012. It took too long for permissions to climb their way up through the bureaucracy and then work their way back down to the people actually doing the research.

The human angle

Sometimes you’ll find yourself faced with the original type of data silo, where old or incompatible technologies hold you back, such as from one software version to another or from one program interface with another. That’s the easier kind to fix, though it may be expensive. You just have to face the situation and replace the old hardware/software with more compatible versions, converting all the data as necessary. Even if it takes many months, it’ll be worth it in the end, because you can then proceed smoothly.

Human beings, however, are much less straightforward than machines. Whether you face data silos resulting from the WADITW (“We’ve always done it this way”) attitude, laziness, or sheer refusal to cooperate, you’ll have to work out ways both subtle and blunt to deal with them. You have no choice but to demolish such silos, so the kernels of information they contain spill out, accessible to all who need them. Here’s how.

  1. Encourage collaboration. A collaborative environment spurs greater productivity, so lead by example: open your data to everyone who needs it, and encourage other team leaders to do the same. You can’t force them unless you’re in the C-Suite, but you can certainly show them how much everyone profits when you do share data. Remember: you all play for the same team. You have too much exterior competition to allow internal squabbling.

  2. Teach your team well. Whether you intend to lead your crew by example or not, you will anyway—so foster an open atmosphere of collaboration within your group. Deliberately remove all roadblocks and info-silos, and encourage your people to share with everyone.

  3. Stress cross-disciplinary cooperation. You’ve probably taken advantage of a drive-through restaurant for a quick meal while on the go. But have you ever wondered how they came about? A McDonald’s VP was making a deposit at a drive-through bank when he wondered idly, “Why can’t this work for our restaurants?” It did. If he hadn’t been willing to keep an open mind and consider ideas from other industries, we might still have to go inside McDonald’s to get our meals. Accept the possibility of cross-fertilization from other fields or departments, and willingly help other groups within your company in order to expose yourself to their techniques and strategies.

  4. Eliminate the choke points. Some people deliberately hold on tightly to their data or power because they don’t want to risk losing them to someone else. When you can, break such strangleholds. You may have to demote or fire some of the worst cases, if you have the power to do so. Remember Perlmutter’s restructuring of Merck’s R&D leadership, which left numerous administrators unemployed. While it wasn’t pleasant, it was necessary to ensure Merck’s survival in a very competitive industry.

  5. Motivate your team. It’s human nature to look out for #1, so tie that into team productivity. Once you and your colleagues have shown your teams the benefits of cross-disciplinary cooperation, shore up the lesson with prizes, bonuses, promotions, time off, and other forms of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that make them eager to help each other.

Hanging together

As he so often did, Benjamin Franklin hit the nail on the head when he told the other Founding Fathers, “If we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.” This is equally true for a modern business. Instead of allowing people to work at cross purposes, smash the data silos so that everyone can get what they need, when they need it — without begging for what’s rightfully shared anyway.

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Photo: Flickr / @kevinv033 CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

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Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in productivity. For over 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro®, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®.

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