Tearing down information silos can improve collaboration, and accelerate efficiency and growth
Think back to the last time you were searching for a specific piece of information. You know someone shared it with you, somehow, but where? Was it a direct message on Slack, or did it come via text? Did someone link it in a project database? Did you scribble it down on a piece of paper? Or maybe you imagined it altogether? You might be suffering from information silos without knowing it.
We rely on software for so much in our daily lives: communication, entertainment, finance, education, healthcare and, of course, work. And since so many jobs require the use of software, there's a lot of it: from simple email and inter-office messaging apps to more complicated productivity tools and project management software, and even specialized industry software. That means there are myriad places where information can be stored. And very often, the same information can be stored in multiple spots. So that salient data point you were searching for — let's say your company's total number of offices in Boston — may be in five different places, including your external website. And you may only be able to access one or two.
But what happens when the Boston branch adds more staff and the number of offices changes? And that's just an example of one, specific data point. What if you’re on a product team that needs access to CRM data, but it's locked in a system that only salespeople can access? Or perhaps you're a CFO working on long-term forecasts, but the company’s financial data is spread across five departments and you can access only two.
Whether you’re looking for a single data point or a complete view into all the data across your entire organization, it’s likely that information silos — scattered across various teams and departments — are getting in your way. A recent Quickbase report on the state of waste in project management found that 50% of decision makers are at least somewhat overwhelmed by the number of systems they need to access to get work done. And while it’s a reality that in today’s world different departments or teams specialize in various aspects of a company’s operations, the resulting silos can impede the flow of information and cause unnecessary errors or delays.
In this article, we’ll explore what information silos are and why they are so disruptive to modern organizations. We’ll also lay out how you can eliminate information silos to get your business back on track.
What are information silos?
First, the basics: Information silos are collections of data that are isolated from other data sources. They occur for a variety of reasons, such as when:
different departments use disconnected systems,
teams store data in different formats, or
data is stored remotely in different locations.
Information silos make it difficult to get a complete picture of a business, and that can lead to problems like inefficiencies in decision-making, inappropriate resource allocation and, ultimately, a decrease in revenue.
When information is isolated or restricted within a particular department within an organization in information silos, that means that data, knowledge or resources are not shared across teams or departments, which makes it harder to communicate and collaborate effectively.
Silos can develop intentionally or unintentionally, and they can be caused by factors like communication breakdowns, misaligned departmental goals, lack of trust or even differences in technology or software.
Information silos slow the innovation process in application development. When teams work in isolation, they may not have access to the latest technologies or industry trends, limiting their creativity and innovation. Furthermore, when teams are not aware of the problems facing other departments, they’re not able to provide effective solutions. Breaking down information silos and promoting collaboration is essential to ensuring the efficient delivery of high-quality products.
How do information silos happen?
Information silos happen for a number of reasons. One common reason is that different departments or teams within an organization use disconnected systems. For example, a sales team might use a CRM system, while the marketing team uses a marketing automation platform. If those systems are not integrated, it can be difficult or impossible to share information between the two teams.
Another reason information silos occur is that data is stored in different formats. For example, an accounting department might store data in a spreadsheet, while a human resources department may store its data in a database. This makes it difficult to compare or correlate the data in any meaningful way.
Finally, information silos can happen when data is stored in different locations. Consider an organization that has a data center located near its main office or headquarters. If that organization also uses applications that house data in the cloud, then that could make it difficult to secure data in a privacy-compliant manner.
When Satya Nadella took over at Microsoft in 2014, he made breaking silos a top priority. The CEO encouraged Microsoft leaders to publish the company’s tools and software on Apple's store, as well as on Android, and got to work unlocking Microsoft Sales tools that had become trapped in silos.
“The greatest asset and most important asset everyone has in this room is the data, which is yours. Except it’s often locked up in silos,” Nadella said at an Adobe Summit in 2021.
What are the problems associated with information silos?
Because information silos are so highly disruptive, they often lead to delays, errors and a duplication of efforts. For instance, if a design team is not aware of the requirements or specifications needed by their development team, they may create a design that is not practical to implement. Similarly, if an organization’s testing team is not informed of the changes made by a development team, it may overlook critical bugs or errors.
Information silos are especially harmful to the application development process, which requires developers to have access to a wide range of data sets, from customer data to product data to financial data. When data is siloed, it’s difficult for developers to create applications that meet the needs of the business.
Lack of efficiency
Information silos often result in duplicated efforts, wasted resources and delays in decision-making — all of which create a lack of efficiency within larger organizations. Additionally, when teams work in isolation, they may not have access to the latest information, which leads to missed opportunities.
Lost knowledge and data
When information is not being shared or stored in a centralized location, that may result in lost knowledge or data. Teams that work in isolation often develop their own processes and systems for storing and managing data. If other teams can’t access that same information, data can easily be lost and valuable insights are never recovered.
Another significant impact of information silos is that they can slow the innovation process. When teams work in isolation, without access to the latest technologies or industry trends, their creativity is diminished and limitations on what they can achieve increase.
Additionally, teams that are not aware of the problems faced by other departments within their organizations are usually not able to provide effective solutions.
Data silos limit collaboration within large organizations because they restrict the flow of information. When different teams or departments work in isolation, and they are not aware of the work being done by other teams, it’s incredibly difficult to collaborate effectively. What’s more, it can cause costly delays, as well as manifest in errors and duplication of efforts.
Eliminating information silos, therefore, is critical for promoting collaboration within large organizations and encouraging teams to work together toward a common goal.
How to break down information silos
Thankfully, there are a number of things that businesses can do to break down information silos. These include standardizing data formats, centralizing data storage and using modern data integration tools.
When former GE CEO Jack Welch described his approach to breaking down silos nearly 30 years ago, he advocated for what he called a “boundaryless organization.” Welch was reportedly convinced that technology-driven innovation would require companies to work differently — with shorter decision cycles, more employee engagement and stronger collaboration. Welch initiated what eventually became known as the GE WorkOut process, a series of structured forums designed to bring people together to solve problems and make smarter decisions.
Organizations also need to prioritize communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing in order to overcome information silos. This can be achieved through regular team meetings, cross-functional training, joint projects and the use of cloud-based collaborative tools, such as project management software, shared document libraries and chat applications.
Establish a central source of knowledge
To break down silos, companies should create a central repository with a common data architecture for all departments. When teams work together, they share information and expertise, which enables the organization to build a centralized knowledge base. This can also elevate a “golden dataset” so organizations can prioritize what information is most critical across functions and how individuals can easily access it. A centralized knowledge base also streamlines decision-making, when all teams have access to the same information.
Create clear workflows
Clear workflows allow team leaders to communicate effectively and break down information silos. When teams work together, they develop a better understanding of each other's work processes, and they are more easily able to identify opportunities for improvement. Teams that work together are also more easily able to address bottlenecks or inefficiencies in the workflow, further improving the overall process.
Encourage cross-functional collaboration
Cross-functional collaboration is the process of bringing together people from different departments or teams to work on a common goal. This can help to break down silos within large organizations by encouraging communication and the sharing of information, promoting the understanding of different perspectives and creating relationships built on trust.Technology can help facilitate cross-functional collaboration. A number of tools are available that make it easier for people from different departments to collaborate in real-time.
When teams work together and share information, they’re more easily able to identify key performance indicators (KPIs) that are relevant to their organization's goals and track progress toward those goals. This enables leaders to monitor the organization's performance and make data-driven decisions based on the latest information.
Breaking down information silos helps teams identify potential issues early on, so they can take corrective action before a problem becomes too severe. Organizations also gain better visibility into their performance.
With the ever-increasing pace of change, organizations need to be able to access and share information quickly in order to stay ahead of the competition. Too many businesses are hampered by information silos that are created when different departments or teams use disconnected systems and processes for storing, sharing and managing information. This can lead to a number of problems, including limited collaboration, slow growth and lost knowledge when key employees leave an organization.
Eliminating information silos needs to be a team effort. Every stakeholder should be involved in developing a plan to integrate data and share knowledge more fluidly between departments.
Breaking down information silos is essential for businesses that want to be successful in today's competitive environment. By taking steps to reduce or eliminate silos, businesses can improve their efficiency, innovation, profitability and customer service.