For many organizations, 2020 was a year for reflecting on what is working and what maybe doesn’t work so well.
It was expected that publishing organizations, or publishing units within societies, would fare well in 2020. Most of the subscriptions were already committed by the time the pandemic started. I’m not sure we have a clear picture yet of what the finances look like for mostly APC-supported open access publishers.
Societies in general likely ended the year okay. Many of the big organizations with major revenue tied to an annual meeting benefited from the one-time insurance payout for having to cancel or go virtual with their meetings. Many were also able to leverage virtual events that brought in revenue, albeit lower amounts than usual. Savings were found in travel budgets.
While 2020 may have been salvaged, we have now firmly landed in 2021, where things may be a little more perilous. Subscription revenue will likely be down significantly, and there are no longer insurance policies available for organizations that still need to break contracts for 2021 in person meetings and conferences.
I think we can all agree that with several viable vaccines available, 2021 is looking much better; however, the financial recovery is still a ways down the road. In order to make it through the year, many organizations are looking inward to see where else they may be able to streamline (expense cuts) or maximize revenue. In many societies, this is called “silo busting.”
We have all likely heard this term, silo busting. The idea is that our departments within an organization are functioning in a silo — each by itself, with very little input or collaboration with other departments. For example, you may have a department that sells advertising for the society magazine that does not communicate regularly with the department that sells exhibits and sponsorships for the annual meeting. In this scenario, revenue potential may be stifled.
Here is a slightly different scenario — you may have a publishing department that produces online and print journals that is entirely separate from the group that produces online and print member magazines. Cost and personnel efficiencies may be possible if these groups worked together.
Operating within silos is not unique to societies, but they have perfected this operation. It is easy to see why. Societies can be several businesses under one umbrella. There’s a meeting planning business, a publishing business, a membership business, and possibly a continuing education business. Each of these operate in a very different ways and potentially with different customers.
Because these discreet units have different goals and potentially even different business models, it makes sense that they operate as silos. In fact, I would argue that these silos of expertise are not bad at all.
There is a scholarly publishing industry, a meetings planning industry, a continuing education industry, etc. Organizations want to recruit and attract the top talent in these industries by having a challenging “silo” for them.
Where silos go wrong is when they are walled or surrounded by a crocodile-filled moat. This is when the change agents in leadership (or god forbid a consultant) comes in and calls for “silo busting.” Remove the walls, break up the leadership structure, flatten the playing field. I can say that at a time when many organizations are thinking about how to optimize operations (either by reducing expense or maximizing revenue), all of them are talking about silo busting.
Busting a well-established silo can be a very violent and unhelpful exercise if done improperly. If your 2021 strategic goals include silo busting or you are afraid your organization is about to bust your silo, here are some alternatives.
Instead of busting the wall of the silo (or waiting for your silo to get busted), start installing some windows. If no one knows what is happening inside a silo, then the assumption is that it’s no good. Have you ever heard someone say, “No one even knows what they do over there”?
When you install the windows in your silo, make sure they are big and can open. You will want to start inviting people to look in those windows. Educate your colleagues on what it is your division does. Does that sound stupid? Do you think they already know? Go ahead and ask them what an Impact Factor is or how federal research funding affects the program. There is a good chance your colleagues don’t really know what you do.
The other reason for windows that open is it gives you an opportunity to listen. Can you hear the chatter of collaboration that’s happening without you? Do you hear opportunities that may improve your business?
Once the windows have been in place for a while, go ahead and convert them to doors. Go slowly at first and invite a few people in at a time. Let them get to know you and your team. Show off the expertise in your silo. Invite someone from the digital team to give an update to an editorial board about website improvements.
Opening doors and inviting people to come check out your silo builds trust and leads to reciprocation.
Now that people are comfortable talking to each other and know who does what, you can build bridges between the silos. This is the final goal — not busting a silo; but building bridges between silos.
The roads on the bridges have to be two-way roads, with no restrictions on movement. Even though people can move fluidly between silos, they still have a home silo and everyone respects that space. Again, we have discreet activities within our organization that require specialized expertise. You don’t want to dilute that goodness by busting a silo.
Practically speaking, this is a lot of heavy construction. There are baby steps you can take to make this work:
- Social interactions — now is the perfect time to cross mingle. Work groups are having virtual social gatherings now more than ever. Take advantage of this by mixing your group with other groups.
- Verbalize your goals — you have a strategy for your silo…I mean division. You have tied them to the organizational goals. Now share them with anyone that will listen. Chances are your goals have a hint of member service, customer care, revenue generation, etc. Ask your colleagues what their goals are, where do they think they will get stuck, what could you do to help. If every silo is working toward the same goal and has thrown open the doors and built the bridges to get there together, then there is nothing wrong with the silo!
- Cross-functional teams — identify the problem or opportunity and create a cross-functional team to work on it. Note — this should in no way look like you have assembled people to solve YOUR problems. These teams should all be able to contribute to end goals and ideally include a mix of people at different levels. Maybe there is a revenue generating team — or even a team of people that get their revenue from similar sources but aren’t already working together. Maybe there is a team that specifically works on common customer service issues. Empower these teams to really problem solve.
I don’t know who coined the term “silo” when it comes to organizations. The poor maligned silo has been a staple of farms everywhere. And organizational structure being what it is, organizations constantly try to re-invent themselves with limited success. As our organizations face difficult decisions in the months ahead, there will be an urge to take a wrecking ball to silos in hopes that leveling them will be enough to make miracles happen.
Resist the urge to bust and instead respect the silos, with some modest remodeling.