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.

Concrete silos

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.

Windows

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?

Doors

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.

Bridges

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.

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She is past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.

Discussion

7 Thoughts on "Don’t Bust Silos When a Little Remodeling Will Do"

Refreshing. Enjoyable. Love the metaphors! 😉 Makes sense! Thank you very much! Curious about what could have led to its alternate (corrupted!?) usage, I discovered this fascinating etymology: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-33273707. An innocent agricultural infrastructure that carries over into organizational analysis. Who knew? Hah, imagining the expressions on faces of the stewards of our food production!

In commercial publishing the more familiar term for “silo-busing” is “reorg, ” (a term that generates groans and eye-rolls). Reorgs can be within a silo sometimes, but those are not the most significant. As with silo-busting, reorgs are not always, but can be, painful and violent, leading to resentments, disorganization, layoffs, resignations, and sometimes improvement and opportunities. Too often, they resemble the children’s party-game of musical chairs. Everyone wants to have a chair when the music stops, but someone is always “out.”
Anyone who has worked in the publishing industry for a decade, has probably been through at least one reorg. Reorgs can beget further reorgs for a host of reasons. Either savings and efficiencies weren’t delivered fast or well enough to meet financial forecasts, combined with …leadership, personalities, existing talent don’t have matching skills …or, assumptions about benefits of structure, change and risk management are wrong… or expectations for quality/speed fall short… or, unforeseen market conditions arise. Reorg timelines are unforgiving – often running two years, from concept to implementation, or less, especially when smaller aquisitions are the driver.
You suggest strategies for success to protect and connect silos that are good practice in any environment. Social interaction, verbalizing goals, and cross-functional teams are all examples of internal communication, sharing information, and collaborating on problem-solving, actually the opposite of a silo mentality as typically understood in a corporate setting (https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/silo-mentality.asp). These approaches, done well and consistently might lessen the need for reorgs. Those who excel have a headstart to the remaining chairs when the music starts again.
To poke a bit a fun at corporate life, check out CNBC’s 2020 top 11 annoying business jargon list and words to use instead – https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/14/avoid-these-most-annoying-business-jargon-words-how-to-speak-clearly-concisely.html

Thanks for this piece Angela. I really like the idea of respecting the silos and why they exist, and I fully agree with your observation that separate businesses, and separate leadership talent pipelines, are two key reasons to retain such structures. Some of your examples of doors, windows, and bridges, and the needs for them, are ultimately about limitations to data-sharing (for example of customer data in a CRM/membership system/peer review system). For this reason, I wonder if you could extend your framework to engage with issues of internal systems and data governance and how to handle that in a silo’d environment?

That is a great question, Roger. Having spent parts of 2020 at two different societies, data ownership is a problem. Who should own the CRM, who decides the business rules? You have memberships being sold in the same system that participation is being tracked in the same system that subscriptions are being accessed. This means there are several “owners.” This could be a task for a high level cross-functional team– aka governance.

Let’s say the bridges have train tracks on them. The train is the data pathways. Trains have conductors and engineers. The engineers drive the train– these would be IT to manage the technical database and customer service who typically enters a lot of the data. The business owners (conferences, publishing sales, membership, etc.) would be the conductors– the overall managers of the train. Every train needs to have both.

Before I lose myself in this metaphor, let me try to wrap it up. The train uses the bridges and goes in and out of the silos. It can pick up passengers along the way and drop them back off when needed. The conductors need to be in agreement on the schedule, speed, and safety of the train and they need to communicate where the engineers should drive the train to.

As you mention, there is data that lives within a group and not attached to the rest of the data. I suppose this data could be part of the cargo on the train. But again, the conductors need to agree that the data should be transported and the engineers directed to make changes based on the data. Some of that information is useful to others; however, and this is a big however, connecting data is hard (no matter what the database manager tells you). You really need to explore whether it is worthwhile. If you aren’t going to use the data, then why go through the trouble of integrating it?

I think some organizations make the mistake and think that their business opportunities will expand exponentially when they put all the data in one place. If you don’t have the technology, the data analysis resources, a sales force or marketing team to create new experiences with that data, then the cost and expense of maintaining and normalizing disparate data may not be worth it.

Leave a Comment