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Bridging silos

There’s almost nothing HR can do anymore without involving key business partners and stakeholders
Whether it’s in the corporate sector, in government or in academia, silos are an inevitability organizations cannot avoid. Shutterstock

By Suanne Nielsen

Whether it’s in the corporate sector, in government or in academia, silos are an inevitability organizations cannot avoid. In fact, they are an essential element of how a business or an organization is structured to ensure accountability, division of labour, specialization, and skills focus.

Silos are also recognized as one of the biggest impediments to innovation. But bridging them versus breaking them presents organizations with a unique challenge that can inspire creativity and innovation.

In the past, HR could sit in the corporate centre and develop policies and roll them out to the rest of the business. Now that has changed. Now HR must work directly with the business to identify the problem that needs to be solved. I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it once more, one of HR’s biggest functions in a business is to clearly define the problem.

My organization has grown through a few acquisitions and through those phases what we’ve seen bubble up is our corporate policies are inconsistent on many levels. From an HR perspective, “respect in the workplace” — which was one of the policies that was inconsistent — is a perfect example of how HR would work in a silo.

Traditionally, HR would create a new “respect in the workplace” policy and issue it with a “thou shalt” mandate across the organization. Now HR must step out of that approach, work with the business and talk to the various departments in the business about why such a policy is important. There’s almost nothing HR can do anymore without involving key business partners and stakeholders. This is change management 101.

When silos collaborate with each other within an organization, you end up with better and more creative solutions, and a culture that lends itself to greater employee engagement and retention.

Silos are built mostly around geography and product offerings. Another example of how we at Foresters collaborate with other departments is how we manage our pension plans. We have a central management pension committee comprised of business folks from HR, investments, actuarial, and finance from our three global geographies (the United States, United Kingdom and Canada). Collaborating leaders listen to each other’s views, act on them, and involve each other in the process.

Expanding portfolios over time is another way to bridge corporate silos as it helps people appreciate an aspect of the business that they didn’t fully understand before.

HR has often been involved in the facilities mandate of an organization. When you think about facilities, you realize how it touches all aspects of our workplace and, therefore, how integral it is to the smooth functioning of a business. If you’re cheap on cleaning services or make choices that make financial sense but not people sense, then the silo mentality can become detrimental. 

Several years ago, our then CEO decided to bring facilities management under HR. Since we own the entire Foresters building, where we occupy half and lease the other half, I knew I had to create a multi-functional team including finance and legal. This way, all three departments would not only be aligned on the financial impact of the decisions we were making, but also in considering outcomes when we took on new tenants or when major building renovations were undertaken.

Through this expansion of my portfolio, I gained an appreciation for the financial aspect of our business. As such, instead of drastic shuffling or changing executive roles, if mandates and functions are expanded, they make way for collaboration within different departments and provide developmental opportunities. Bridging silos also gives high-potential, mid-level managers an avenue to gain experience in an area they wouldn’t have otherwise involved themselves with.

Silos are a trendy word for organizational fragmentation — a problem that governments and banking systems often struggle with, according to Financial Times’ award-winning columnist Gillian Tett. It’s not just a matter of departments not talking and co-operating with each other, it’s a matter of allowing tunnel vision to creep into processes where the focus is solely upon what’s in front of them, thereby losing sight of the bigger problem at hand.

Without silos, organizations would become chaotic work environments. However, silos tend to lose track with the pace of progress occurring outside their systems. This gives birth to myopic organizations that adhere to outdated and rigid mandates. Acknowledging the existence of silos at your organization is the first step to bridging them. While it’s seems like a simple first step, it’s difficult one to take.

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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit www.scnetwork.ca.
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