How to break down silos, barriers (Toughest HR Question)

Ensure organizational culture, structure fosters collaboration
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/24/2012

Question: As an HR professional, how can I go about breaking down organizational barriers and silos among departments and people with different functional and professional backgrounds?

Answer: Working in silos — sometimes even in competition with one another — is an all-too-common problem at many organizations. While some healthy competition can be good, not sharing information, failing to consider the needs of other stakeholders and working at cross-purposes are likely to cause more harm than good.

One of HR’s mandates is to improve organizational effectiveness. This applies not only to organizational development (OD) specialists but HR generalists and specialists in other functional areas of HR.

So, it’s important for HR not to be seen as part of the problem. Yet at some organizations, the HR department is just as guilty as anyone when it comes to creating barriers and silos between it and other parts of the organization.

This can happen when HR is out of touch with the realities experienced by rank-and-file managers and employees — or when HR is seen as bureaucratic, inflexible and lacking knowledge of the workings of the business.

So, promoting organizational excellence should start with HR and then move to other areas of the organization.

Below are some of the potential causes of this type of organizational dysfunction and suggestions for improvement.

Organizational culture

An organizational culture that encourages excessive competition among departments can lead to dysfunction. This is sometimes even reinforced by the way employees are compensated and incented, and the types of behaviours that are encouraged and rewarded by senior management, implicitly or explicitly.

Excessive competition can also be driven by a lack of understanding of the budgeting process and the organization’s overall financial health. While it’s a good idea to make each department accountable for its own internal budget, when they act like independent businesses by hoarding funds internally and trying to make large “profits” vis-a-vis other departments, it’s easy to forget about the organization’s overall financial health.

Organizational design and structure

The way an organization is designed and structured can also have an impact on the degree of collaboration and information-sharing among departments. Organizations can be organized by function, product, customer or vertical market, or geography, or they may be set up as matrix organizations.

While organizational design can effectively leverage the knowledge of experts, it can also cause employees to be too narrowly focused on their own area of expertise.

Similarly, while organizing based on product, customer or vertical market, or along geographic lines allows specialization with regard to a product or customer, it can create internal competition and lead to ineffective communication among different teams or departments.

A matrix organization, on the other hand, is based partially on function and partially on projects. Individuals typically report to a functional manager but may have a dotted-line relationship to a project manager or functional manager in a different area, at least for the duration of a particular project.

For example, the HR function in a matrix environment may have a corporate HR department responsible for developing strategies, setting policy and creating programs on an enterprise-wide basis.

However, each line of business or major functional area would also typically have HR business partner groups reporting to line executives, with a dotted-line relationship to corporate HR. Those business partner groups are then responsible for implementing HR strategy and rolling out HR programs for their own lines of business.

Matrix organizations can help break down barriers and silos by allowing employees to see the bigger picture and work in cross-functional teams. However, there are certain disadvantages to this type of design, such as the inherent complexity of such arrangements and the fact it can be difficult for an employee to determine who her manager actually is.

It’s also pretty much impossible for a matrix environment to exist at a smaller organization.

Differing educational, functional and professional backgrounds

Employees with different educational and professional backgrounds think differently, and, therefore, may have difficulty understanding the perspectives of employees in other departments.

It’s very easy to focus on one’s own little piece of the overall puzzle, especially when people haven’t been given adequate organizational context or been trained in the fundamentals of other areas outside their own discipline.

Tips and strategies for breaking down organizational silos

•Make collaboration, co-operation and communication a strategic focus of the organization.

•Revamp performance management and total rewards programs to reward and encourage collaboration and co-operation.

•Ensure managers do not encourage dysfunctional behaviour or excessive competition.

•Introduce a matrix structure.

•Introduce cross-functional teams, secondments and job rotations.

•Encourage internal movement of employees.

•Require, and facilitate, opportunities for senior leaders in HR and other staff functions to obtain line management experience.

•Provide employees with information on organizational strategy and adequate context around overall organizational goals and objectives.

•Educate employees in different functional areas about the business and provide training on business fundamentals.

•Educate employees about different departments and what they do by organizing lunch-and-learns and communicating information about different departments as part of employee communications.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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