...And the Walls Came Tumblin' Down

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Here are several great tips on how to tear down silos between organizational departments and the association’s communications vehicles.

By Mark C. Wills

By Mark C. Wills

In the March 27, 2015 issue of Sidebar, Alex Schwartzwald of Knowledge Marketing asserted, "Silos are for farmers” not marketers. But marketers are not the only association staffers for whom silos prove problematic.

Association communications professionals also encounter organizational obstacles when they try to work interdepartmentally. And, as Paul Guinnessy, strategy manager and website director for American Institute of Physics’s Physics Today, suggested at Association Media & Publishing's April 7, 2015 Lunch & Learn, "Breaking Down Silos Between Departments and Communication Vehicles,"even those in like fields within the same organization can work and talk at cross purposes.

Getting Engaged

Guinnessy says that the financial crisis of 2008-2009 spurred a re-examination of AIP's priorities and resources by management. This led to the realization that the magazine's departments were highly siloed, along with some of the other divisions.

To begin the arduous task of tearing down these walls, Guinnessy and company took a handful of important actions:

  • Stakeholder engagement. Guinnessy noted that with AIP and Physics Today content being pushed to their audiences through multiple media (RSS, Facebook, and magazines, to name a few), "There are also silos in the media channels." He and his group identified key existing and potential partners, internal and external, and talked with them about "building closer links” and publishing to their platforms. According to Guinnessy, this lays "a foundation for better engagement" moving forward.
  • Forging new bonds. Management, including Guinnessy, rewrote the staff's job descriptions to encourage "cross-[team] fertilization." Another unique and effective tactic that some companies use, said Guinnessy, is to install webcams and monitors in the kitchens, so that individuals can see colleagues on floors they rarely interact with when they need a refill on their coffee. It's been effective at starting up conversations about work or otherwise, he says.
  • Realistic about the process. Guinnessy stressed that breaking down silos is not a one-time proposition. "You have to keep doing it again and again and again," he says. And it can take different amounts of time depending on the team or department you're trying to connect with.

A Unified Vision, a Unified Plan

Patrick Lencioni, author of Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, argues that "The key to eliminating silos is simply to provide a compelling context for colleagues to understand that they should be rowing in the same direction, and why serving the common good is better for them than looking out for number one." This should ring especially true for associations: Members are much more concerned about the associationâ's value to them than what goes on behind the curtain.

Sarah Rand, vice president, digital communications for the National Retail Federation, says her association's silos have been toppled somewhat by president and CEO Matthew Shay's vision. When Shay joined NRF in 2010, separate websites and memberships still existed for divisions that had been acquired by the organization years ago. He quickly identified the need to unify all programs and staff behind the Federation's mission, branding his vision "One NRF."

"Everyone understands NRF's goals," Rand says. "When everyone understands that one vision, there's not much room for silos."

Even with Shay's strong leadership and guidance, Rand notes, silo smashing cannot be undertaken as an individual effort. She highlighted several key themes for easing interdepartmental tensions:

  • Trust and respect. Rand trusts that her colleagues know what they're doing. When she goes to them with a problem that they may be able to solve with their expertise, she leaves them alone.
  • Honesty. Rand says, "Be honest about your knowledge base and skill set."
  • Clarity. Document, document, document, urges Rand. "Put it in writing." Avoid ambiguity in who does what by establishing bright lines of roles and responsibilities.
  • Communication. Rand highlights the need to keep lines of communication open. This includes spelling out what you know, what you don't know about your colleagues' work, and why each of you do what you do. "Over-communication is a myth. Over-communication is a unicorn," she says. "Communication is everyone's responsibility."

Getting It Done

But just how do you convince colleagues that knocking down these walls is a good idea? Sometimes, Guinnessy suggests, you can couch cross-team silo-busting as "experiments" that can be tried out, postponed, or abandoned without too many egos or bottom lines being hurt. Sometimes, it becomes a matter of waiting out those who push back, giving them time to see your team's unsiloed accomplishments, Rand says.

Nevertheless, Lencioni holds an optimistic view about breaking down silos. "People want to work together. Really," he says. "Happier employees. Happier customers [and members]. It's a powerful concept, requiring more courage and persistence than anything else."

Mark C. Wills is communications manager for the Public Affairs Council, a leading association for public affairs professionals. Follow Mark on Twitter.

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