posted 31 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 3
Jerry Ash: Silos and beyond
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
If knowledge management (KM) is a movement, it is up against some serious competition. KM leaders are hurling themselves like lemmings at solid structural entrenchments that have already survived business-process reengineering and security issues driven by legal and regulatory requirements. Suggestion: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Not all organisations are clinging to silos and allowing risk management to prevent solid KM programmes. In September 2005, Sony announced significant moves to strengthen its competitiveness by, among other things, restructuring its Electronics Organisation to eliminate corporate silos “to foster coordinated, efficient and rapid decision making” across business functions.
But where silos and/or security continue to be issues, KM leaders need to find work-arounds, to find ways to work within the system.
That’s why the case report, ‘Security and Silos’ (page 14) of this issue, is so significant. Erick Thompson, second VP, KM, St. Paul Travelers, may be the first KM practitioner to openly admit he’d rather join apparent anti-KM forces and win than fight and go down to defeat.
The silo metaphor is an interesting one. Agricultural silos were actually trenches dug in the 1800s in
KM idealists see the similarity between corporate and agricultural silos, which explains the strong urge to ‘bust’ them. But there are, in fact, some good things about corporate silos. They provide spaces in which professionals of like backgrounds, training and missions can work. And, not all work activity involves knowledge sharing and collaboration. There are silos within silos and each creates a safe place where people who need knowledge sharing can work with people they know and trust without being inhibited by unknown people who often have different agendas than their own.
Silos are mostly isolated from one another and that’s the complaint of knowledge management. But faced with the reality that most silos will likely remain in operation, the smart KM strategist will discover these hated silos can be treated as rudimentary predecessors of communities of practice or even networks of them. The challenge, then, for the KM champion is not to bust silos but to penetrate them with channels of communication that will allow a little air and positive fermentation. That has become the way of the model at
St. Paul Travelers and it has made it possible for silos to have both internal and interdisciplinary networks, even in a system of boundaries and control.
Security issues are growing rapidly as a challenge to knowledge management. Symantec-Veritas, a world leader in security management, lists almost 30 major world-wide standards and regulations that make decentralised management and open knowledge sharing problematic.
Eliminating walls may seem good to the idealist but, in reality, the wholesale penetration of walls can be a threat to both silos and security because it leaves both people and organisations vulnerable. The ability to download business or personal information on the internet intrudes on former safe spaces.
The vulnerabilities of the knowledge age are best understood by visiting two websites – fuckedcompany.com and internalmemos.com – both feeding the mean-spirited appetites of people who like to interfere with the privacy of enterprises and people. Clearly, it is difficult to say that an environment of trust is easier to establish today than it was 20 years ago when the modern KM movement leaped forward.
As painful as it might seem to the sensibilities of KM thought leaders and practitioners, however, it is time to consider the potential value to KM of such negative-sounding concepts as restricted membership, controlled access, boundaries and gatekeepers. If these were to be primarily about corporate security and proprietary intellectual capital, KM people would be wise to resist. But, as the Forrester report shows (page 14), the greatest need for security was among individuals, not their employers.
In a report* written by Dianne Ford, assistant professor of Organisational Behaviour and Management Information Systems, School of Business & Economics,
The framework of the knowledge management programme at St. Paul Travelers puts a different face on silos and security and is an excellent first example of turning the tables on two oft-lamented adversaries by helping silos use KM to change the way silos work and by providing positive environments where people and business leaders will not abort KM because of distrust.
* Ford, D.P. (2003), ‘Trust and Knowledge Management: The Seeds of Success.’ In Holsapple, C. (ed.) Handbook on Knowledge Management: Knowledge Matters, Volume 1,