From the Unconference: Silos: To break or not to break? What is the question?

Editor’s Note: We’re inviting people to contribute thoughts and ideas sparked by the recent ILA Leadership Forum Unconference. Send contributions to l-barnes at illinois dot edu. The following guest post is from Jill Sodt, LRC Coordinator for Black Hawk College in Galva, IL. Jill also tweets as @cclibrarian.

During the unconference, there was a great deal of discussion about silos and how we can deal with compartmentalization. It made me curious about how and why silos exist and if there is an effective way to make bridges between different groups. The concept of silos within organizations isn’t something new. I’ve heard much over the years about “breaking down silos” and how being too compartmentalized is a bad thing. But I’ve always doubted the need to either break anything or to destroy departments in favor of something more integrated. It seems that most organizations need a blend of a shared vision and defined groups. Being a librarian, I decided to do a bit of research into the subject.

Silos happen in two different but connected ways. We’re familiar with putting people into departments based on shared tasks, goals, skills, etc. The same often occurs with committees or other work groups. This makes sense organizationally because resources, both knowledge and physical, can be shared by those with similar duties. Sam Marshall explains the usefulness of “tribes” in his blog post, 5 Great Things about Silos. Silos do not necessarily stop collaboration from happening; it just occurs among a specific group. In these situations, the work can be focused and it’s easy for team members to understand what their role is. However, one important thing to point out is the group must work together effectively.

The problems start when these silos start to influence organizational behavior on an unconscious level. To put it another way, according to research by Frans Cilliers and Henk Greyvenstein, “silo mentality impacts team identity.”  While departments may be divided into different physical spaces, silo mentality is not based on any physical designations. Those walls are invisible barriers. Silos become dangerous when people start seeing their group in an “us vs. them” struggle. Eventually, people will identify only with their “tribe” and ignore the rest of the organization. Often, it leads to groups feeling superior to “outside” groups. While silos can be useful according to Marshall, they can also lead to toxicity and other negative impacts on the team.

Perhaps we don’t need to get rid of our silos; maybe we need to reorganize them.  Still, restructuring and reorganizing will not work if we don’t change the way we do things and approach things. You won’t get buy-in from managers or employees if all you are doing is just moving people around, cross-training, or creating interdisciplinary committees. It’s simply not enough and eventually you will find yourself back in the old organizational mentality. Moving beyond silos does involve change management and good leadership. It takes a culture change. Instead of groups or departments that are concerned with their specific functions, leadership must steer people towards an environment that encourages problem-solving.

Don’t despair. It can be accomplished. Laura Gregg describes a situation that could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t, in her article “Lessons Learned From the Brink of Disaster.” This particular case appealed to me because after reorganization, the steering council came up with the idea of a “service line” where individuals within the organization could choose to develop secondary skills. We often talk about cross-training in libraries. However, sensitivity needs to be given to people’s interests and abilities. For example, a cataloger may be extremely uncomfortable being on the reference desk, but may find they like working the circulation counter a few hours a week. Initially, the idea of “service lines” at Gregg’s company almost failed because the steering council didn’t get input on their initial vision. How many times has administration decided to roll out a new process or project without consulting the very people it will most impact? It didn’t work. Once the council started talking to people, they were able to come up with a better plan.

What does this mean for libraries? We know that either within our library or school (if you are an academic library) there are silos created by different departments. In an ideal situation, your director or administration would be the initial force in breaking down the barriers and setting a different tone. However, we also know the reality is this isn’t how things work much of the time. So, what to do?

While I can’t speak for the whole library community, I will share some steps I’m taking with my department/library in formal and informal ways. With a nod to a colleague for the idea, I’ve started inviting other department heads or directors to our staff meetings to chat. In a busy college, we often don’t realize what is going on elsewhere. This is providing my department with the opportunity to learn what else is going on around campus. Eventually, I hope to expand this to tours of different departments, such as our agricultural mechanics labs or the facilities areas. Other things we do to show off what the library is about include a summer reading program, National Library Week activities, and targeted emails to solicit feedback and push information.

Informally, I try to get outside my office and the library daily. It helps me stay aware of what else is going on around campus and to chat with individuals throughout the college. Sometimes those conversations lead to interesting ideas and collaborations on projects beyond our department. I’ve also started a knitting/crochet group that is open to students, staff, and faculty. Finding a common interest can be a great way to move beyond those invisible walls. Even if you’re not talking about work, you are still creating an environment where people being to build relationships and trust. That can be transferred later to actual work related projects.

My hope is that eventually, by leading from within, change can happen in my culture. You can help lead that change where you are, even if it starts in an informal way. Look around for opportunities. Be open to change and new ways of doing things. Even if we can’t break down the silos, I believe that we can make them work in positive ways.


Cilliers, Frans, and Henk Greyvenstein. “The Impact of Silo Mentatlity on Team Identity: An Organisational Case Study.” SA Journal of Industrial Psychology 38.2 (2012): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.

Gregg, Laura. “Lessons Learned From the Brink of Disaster.” Journal for Quality and Participation Spring (2005): 8-12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.

Marshall, Sam. “5 Great Things About Silos.” Jostle. Jostle Corporation, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. <>.

Thorp, Holden, and Buck Goldstein. “How to Create a Problem-Solving Institution (and Avoid Organizational Silos).” Chronicle of Higher Education 57.2 (2010): 43-44. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.


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