Rise and Shine

The Silo Effect: Did the Evolution of Business Take a Wrong Turn?

SilosOne of the major talking points in social media at this point is how the circle of brand development is fractured with silos. To be considered fundamentally sound a social marketing strategy needs to address public relations, marketing, research and development, technology, customer support, sales, and a myriad of other disciplines that have traditionally been handled by specialists.


It is a great day when a manager finds an employee who can transition between roles while maintaining a high level of efficiency and quality in their work. However, most of the time you’re going to find that the only employees who can handle a customer support role are those who are naturally gifted, or those who have had common customer courtesy drilled into their head. The same goes for the other departments; when you ask an engineer to market a product, they’ll focus on properties of the product and its components rather than focus on what it can do for you.


Problems with compartmentalization in business usually boil down to a communication problem. Recent Internet startups have designed their offices without walls to address the problem, and other businesses institute regular mandatory meetings so each department can stay up to date with what others are doing. As businesses grow, leadership adopts new conventions to meet new needs. Very few businesses are set up from fruition to operate on the level of a Fortune 500 company, and the longer employees work in the confines of a given infrastructure, the harder it is to effect change.


I think that specialization can be a great thing when it comes to digital marketing strategy. As long as teams share common goals and maintain a consistent ambience in their endeavors, a skilled marketing director can match their vision with the best personnel for the job. Eliminating departmental segregation on a large scale isn’t what the academics that coined the term “silo effect” had in mind. It’s a communication probelm for the most part, and has several negative effects within the company. If you solve for communication and mediate differences swiftly, you won’t need a drastic change to see drastic results.


Marketing Silos

This graphic by David Edelman shows the traditional segregation of business functions under the corporate umbrella.


Match Employees to Best Fit Social Channels

To figure out what you want to do with your social marketing strategy, take a look at the available channels. We always complain about the vast number of networks that are available, but we rarely look at which channels are working in the context of our existing business infrastructure. Most social media people look at a website like Quora or Yahoo! answers and see a chance to market their brand by offering a link back to their content. If you wanted to do social right for your business, you would see those networks as an opportunity for your product development team to address specific questions posed by the public.


Each network can be used in a number of ways, but you’ll often find that individual channels are often better suited for a specific discipline. There isn’t a clear cut recipe here; I have saw businesses use YouTube successfully in the confines of customer service, marketing, and public relations. In most cases those businesses assigned YouTube as a solution for a single department though.


When it comes to your presence on Facebook, where a broader audience who already uses the network for a number of purposes themselves will be listening, a more collaborative approach is necessary. It could be as simple as having employees from each department getting qualified through testing to be a part of a special Facebook team. It may mean dedicating a full time position to handling inquiries and content. Whatever you do, planning is essential and the more people you involve, the more chance for both risk and reward.


Silos are for Farming Aren’t They?

We all like to see a progressive go getter try and shake things up, especially in the corporate world. The thing is, it’s probably going to be easier to find a way to work in a businesses’ existing infrastructure than it will be to totally redefine how a company does business. The fact is that it is possible to address most problems within the confines of an existing infrastructure and there are reasons that specialization has become so ingrained in corporate culture. Without considering the problems it solves, preaching about its shortcomings is short sighted. Without proving a viable solution, it’s going to take a big problem to get anything more than someone fired in most corporate infrastructures.


I can’t say that I’m up to speed on the best ideas aimed at deconstructing silos. There are several books coming out this year, and if there was nothing there you wouldn’t see major publishers printing books on the subject. The truth is, corporate marketing infrastructure IS most definitely heavily segregated. I’ve saw large companies that silo their silos, and intra departmental struggles between teams that are across the hallway from each other in the short time I’ve been dealing with marketers within the realm of social media. It’s ridiculous when the different silos actually have to fight over who controls the Twitter account.


A lot of the information published online explores the problems with compartmentalization, but I haven’t read that much about solutions. It’s much easier to design a support infrastructure from the ground up with collaboration in mind than it is to deconstruct silos at long standing Fortune 500 companies. The more I have looked in to marketing infrastructure in larger companies and tried to understand it, the more I’ve encountered problems that are really hard to wrap your head around; at the same time, I’ve saw lots of mistakes that could primarily be blamed on the wrong person doing someone else’s job.


Has Anyone Ever Deconstructed Business Unit Silos?

Surprisingly, it has happened and savvy consultants use the same tools they use to develop a strategic social media campaign in the first place: measurement and results. As time goes on however, the holdouts are older companies, unionized companies, larger companies; it’s becoming harder for analysts, consultants and employees to break down the silos that are left. You cannot break down a silo by pointing out the problems with compartmentalization. You can’t break down a silo by telling people that you have a better way. You have to use the same incentives that cause professionals to do everything they do. Potential promotion, larger profits, and proven results.


Start out with the domain you’re given. Operate through normal channels and measure impressive results. If your results aren’t that impressive, using the silo effect as an excuse isn’t going to help your plight. If they are impressive, word is going to travel up the chain until you catch the attention of someone who can operate across business functions. They will offer you the means to do even more. Decide what access would make the most difference; would having access to customer service, marketing, or public relations have the most positive effect for your strategy? As you move forward, barriers will fall and you’ll eventually have a division that can cross departments without the beuracracy associated with traditional business.


This brings up one of the major problems with organizational change. When you change the way an organization does business, there will be a need to transfer some employees, and possibly fire some people. It creates a situation where all consultants are seen as enemies. Usually when the problems get bad enough for a company to look inward at their infrastructure, there is going to be some fat to be trimmed; it’s often part of the problem.


Institutions Operate on Different Rules

Big business creates a lot of problems in itself. As someone who is results oriented, it seems ridiculous that large public facing companies need to staff a dozen regional call centers with customer care representatives. So many problems addressed in those call centers are a product of the sales team. When the representative can’t help the customer, they pass them on to technical support. How are you going to pass a customer off to 3 employees to fix a problem they shouldn’t have in the first place?


It’s unacceptable to me, as it is to the customer, as it is to the small business owners who say “never with my product”. For every product that causes that problem though, there are 49 that work as advertised, or work well enough that the customer doesn’t raise a fuss. There are thousands and thousands of customer complaints filed every day for thousands of products. Very few complaints or incidents go viral on the Internet though, and as long as big business is running profitably, I don’t know anyone that will talk a CEO into altering their infrastructure. We may be giving the power of social media too much credit, and that’s as dangerous to the long-term health of the industry as it is to downplay its importance.


What do you think about Silos in marketing? Have you ever really considered the positive aspects of specialization, or the negative impact resulting from break downs in communication? Is social media important or demanding enough to create a collaborative division just to deal with it? How much of effective marketing can be attributed to luck anyway? I’ll probably look in to it a little further, but mostly because I’m not satisfied either way, and it is increasingly finding its way into my own research. I don’t see myself in a position to alter corporate infrastructure anytime soon, bet then again I didn’t see myself questioning Fortune 500 marketing managers about their infrastructure this time last year either. For now, I’ll let you be the judge, and if you can effect a major change in the infrastructure of a Fortune 500 company, you’re gonna go far, kid.



  1. David /

    Very insightful, Adam.  I’ve been working with a digital engineering company and this issue has been at the forefront of recent discussions among managers.  Too often it’s a case of ‘bow tie’ thinking and structures – commercial people facing the customer, then turning inward to single points of failure (account handlers) who try to engage/seek support from the technical silos and the whole communication piece flounders.  If I read you right, a ‘diamond’ shape is what you’re leaning towards, i.e. bring the technical specialists into the room with commercial, let them do their stuff and really work the comms in the fat part of the diamond. The solutions are then much closer to the customer.  It needs social collaboration and comms facilitation par excellence.  A redefined role for L&D?

    • I think each situation is unique. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard a bow tie vs. diamond reference, in that case, opening up more channels of communication would be a good idea, but you would need to institute a tracking mechanism to make sure each ticket was addressed efficiently (social collaboration and comms facilitation?), and to track the people involved. That was generally the role of the choke point, to be accountable for the roles they were given. The size of the company, the nature of their product cycle, and a hundred other things need to be looked at before you start altering these things, and always make sure to note the reasons for segregation and choke points; you’ll need to fill that role later, or you’ll find that you’ve probably created a problem that is more detrimental to operations than what you’ve solved. 

      You’ve made me think enough that I could write another post on this subject. Great comment David, I think you probably have the right idea in your specific case. There isn’t a one size fits all use for social media, or for how you design your marketing infrastructure. 

      • David Shindler /

        Thanks Adam.  Another angle on this is the degree of specialization that works in any given situation.  Too much and comms is harder.  An alternative is greater transdisciplinarity (enough breadth and depth of other disciplines) which helps the comms and customer focus.  Get the balance wrong and you get dilution.  

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