How to Break Down Information Silos and Why It Matters

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Breaking down information silos can help solve problems faster by sharing experiences across teams. It can also increase innovation by pollinating ideas across a broad range of perspectives.

Many organizations are seeking ways to improve the focus and efficiency of their workers. Some prescribe to the idea that isolating groups will allow them to focus on their own problems and projects and lead them to the most productive outcomes. However, creating these information silos can be counterproductive to your team’s productivity. Breaking down information silos between teams can unlock innovation and allow the team to benefit from collaborative problem solving, which can surface solutions faster.

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Breaking down information silos can provide unexpected value

I recently sat in on a meeting with a customer in the public sector who shared the unexpected value they received from integrating new tools and tactics into the organization.

Engineering teams that had never worked together were sharing ideas and solving problems at a rate faster than ever. This was mind-blowing to the customer who had tried to isolate teams in an effort to keep them focused and efficient.

But they found that removing the barriers to interacting outside of their respective areas of ownership made individual teams more effective and efficient in their own areas. Now, these teams had access to new information that allowed them to gain new perspectives on their problems and use other team’s learnings to solve their own issues.

The same customer was talking about the breaking down of information silos, the phenomenon of data and knowledge getting trapped inside a team or department, and preventing others from accessing it.

According to a report by Wrike, missing information is the biggest stressor for employees, with 52% of survey respondents reporting it as an issue.

I have to admit I was surprised that this was “unexpected value,” as it is something that is so ingrained in my employer’s culture that I forget this goal is a newer concept for some organizations. Of course, many of us have heard this phrase used many times in articles and maybe even by our leadership teams as organizational goals. It is not for lack of wanting their teams to have access to information — some organizations have rigid policies of data sharing based on clearance levels and “need-to-know” information policies. But even in the most confidential environments, there are still benefits of removing information silos. I’ve recognized in my previous experience and through many, many conversations with customers that the how is where they struggle to implement this lofty goal.

See also: Reimagining ETL in the Era of Cloud Data

How information silos happen

Organizational factors and individual factors can cause information silos.

Organizational factors include:

  • Clearance or impact level data classifications. Especially in public sector organizations, there are policies around who has access to certain information.
  • Organizational structures and systems. At times, teams and their data may be physically separated, making it difficult to share information. Other times there may be a competitive environment between teams.
  • Desire to keep teams focused. Often information is not shared because managers want their team to stay focused on their own deliverables, and new or more information could distract them.
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Individual factors include:

  • Fear of redundancy in your role. If you share knowledge, others will learn it, and you may no longer be an expert. You may perceive sharing as a risk to your job and worth.
  • Scared to look like you don’t know. It is hard to be vulnerable and post a question that may expose your lack of knowledge.
  • Desire to control messaging. You may want to withhold information so that you can portray or present it to give it a more positive or negative spin.

Why does breaking down information silos matter?

Before I get into the “how,” I will touch on the “why.” This is critical because it drives the organization’s motivation and sets the foundation for the successful implementation of removing or breaking down information silos.

My customer highlighted that breaking down information silos can help solve problems faster by sharing experiences across teams.Think about the times you’ve spent Googling or waiting for someone to answer your question, only to find out after the fact that someone else readily knew the answer. Asking questions in an open environment not only improves your productivity, it also helps others more quickly solve their problems — either by finding past information or by encouraging colleagues to ask their questions in an open forum.

By openly sharing context and knowledge, teams are better aligned and more prepared to develop high-impact solutions. Input from multiple sources can help identify the core problem and find quick solutions. This input could range from collecting more information points to identifying the key problem to collecting ideas on how to best solve the problem.

Removing information silos can also increase innovation by pollinating ideas across a broad range of perspectives. You get diverse perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, and cultural input, which helps uncover blind spots and makes solutions stronger.

An additional benefit of breaking down information silos is building a culture of trust. Trust is earned by removing fears about what may be happening behind closed doors, helping others understand the reasons behind decisions or initiatives, and promoting inclusivity by ensuring everyone has the same access to the information.

See also: Business Leaders Must Make Data Fabrics a Priority in 2022

Where can you get the most impact?

Here are some specific areas where being open reaps a large return on investment:

Best practices for doing work: When teams share their work publicly, anyone can ask questions, provide feedback and learn from each other. As the team provides updates about changes they are considering, they keep stakeholders informed and educated, and they get feedback before applying a change. Sharing rich content, including design files, documents, and meeting recordings, in public mediums benefits people inside and outside of the team by providing a deeper contextual understanding of the material. Encouraging deep engagement helps uncover issues or solutions that the team may have missed.

Troubleshooting issues: Sometimes, issues can be hard to solve, and it may be difficult to understand the root cause. By inviting input from individuals outside of the problem space, the team can gain a new perspective on how to approach troubleshooting. It may be that a person outside of the team has experienced a similar problem and has a solution, which enables quicker resolution. By exposing issues to a wider audience, employees also share knowledge on what may be the cause, making it easier to prevent the issue in the future.

Planning for the future: Sharing a vision, roadmaps, and plans helps teams communicate priorities and get valuable feedback. When teams keep stakeholders in the loop, they build trust because people feel heard. This approach also allows stakeholders to weigh in on the problem and the solution, helping solve challenges by crowd-sourcing knowledge of others who may have expertise in these areas.

Expectation setting: It is critical for everyone in an organization to understand their processes and policies, but when people outside the organization have visibility into how things operate, they get insight into why the team makes decisions and prioritize the way they do. Understanding the context of how and why can make teams more efficient and help expose any blind spots in expectations.

Getting results

Many organizations in most industries strive to break down silos and share knowledge. But this effort can seem daunting if you have an organization of hundreds or even thousands of employees across different domains. Simply, individuals greatly influence the breakdown of organizational information silos.

You can use these tactics to break down silos in your organization or help others in their organizations:

  1. Define confidentiality: Understand your company confidentiality policy. Organizations that need to be sensitive to clearance levels can consider implementing processes to report mistakenly shared confidential information.
  1. Be default open: Have discussions in public mediums that can be discovered and joined by individuals interested in contributing to a specific topic. These can be topic-level channels or even channels specific to daily team collaboration. Reserve private discussions for sensitive “need to know only” topics or personnel conversations. Open access to project trackers, policies, and process documentation can keep people looped in on what is happening and how it happens.
  1. Be curious: Askquestions to get more context and understanding of colleagues’ projects. Ask if information can be distributed to your team, and learn how others solved problems.
  1. Invite conversation: When conversations or information is delivered synchronously via a meeting or video call, share with others not in attendance by posting detailed notes or recordings. Encourage others to comment or ask clarifying questions, be curious about activities outside of the organization and reach out to learn more.
  1. Create a safe environment: Create a culture that supports cross-sharing information and asking questions. Sharing information can make individuals feel vulnerable, so ensure leaders promote public information sharing, modeling it, and provide opportunities for teams to ask each other questions.
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Katie Wiersgalla

About Katie Wiersgalla

Katie Wiersgalla is a Director of Product Management at Mattermost, a leading open source collaboration platform purpose-built for developers.

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