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March 16, 2015

Breaking down content silos: expectation vs. reality

You’re probably hearing it more and more: silos are bad for your business. They discourage collaboration, lead to duplication and inconsistency, and prevent you from delivering a unified content experience to your customers. But what really happens when you try to break them down?

Expectation: One big happy content-creating family. Reality: "We don't like change!" (flickr: Daniele Nicolucci)

Expectation: One big happy content-creating family. Reality: “We don’t like change!”
(flickr: Daniele Nicolucci)

In Marcia Riefer Johnston’s recent post, Scott Abel discusses the importance of eliminating silos and restructuring content departments to foster collaboration. I agree that developing content without silos would be extremely beneficial for companies, content creators, and customers. However, the reality of achieving this goal can be slow, difficult, and painful.

Before you start the process of breaking down the barriers between your company’s content groups, it’s important to think about how and why those silos formed in the first place. Silos may not seem to add value to your business, but they do exist for several reasons:

  • Structure. Companies need to be divided into departments to stay organized and avoid chaos. This is especially true as a company grows larger and larger.
  • Accountability. With the department structure comes a reliable management system and chain of command. People can be held responsible for departments’ successes or failures.
  • Focus. It makes sense to group people together based on what type of content they are best at creating (for example, technical writers or marketing specialists).

Silos are often deeply entrenched. Maybe they’ve existed for years, or they’re an integral part of the company culture. Sometimes they lead to competitive relationships between departments (we’ve seen this happen with technical and marketing groups). The more ingrained these silos are, the more difficult they are to change. In many cases, it’s easier to leave silos as they arefor those who manage them as well as those who work inside themthan to try to dismantle them.

Here are challenges you can expect to face when you attempt to break down your company’s silos:

  • Lack of motivation. Some of your colleagues may say they support your efforts, but never do anything to back up their claims. Others may agree with you in principle, but feel that your goals are not realistic. Getting people to start thinking about breaking down silos is easyconvincing them to take action can be an uphill battle.
  • Change resistance. Be prepared for negative comments like, “We don’t have time for all this change with our deadlines,” “We’d never make up for the learning curve,” or “Why fix what’s been working for years?” Even if the people in one group can see the value in collaborating with others, they worry about what that means for their day-to-day work experience.
  • An extremely long process. It may be years before you see your efforts lead to any change in your company at all, much less achieve your end goal of no more silos. Future employees of your company may see more changes and fewer silos than you do.

Sometimes the best way to work toward breaking down silos is finding small ways to improve the relationships between departments. Introducing these compromises will likely be much more effective than suggesting drastic changes:

  • Encourage collaboration. Try having a weekly meeting with representatives from each content department so that they can each be aware of what the others are doing. Even if the silo structure is still in place, these meetings will keep the groups from working in isolation.
  • Manage your silos better. Remember that silos are important to your company from a management point of view, even if they hurt the business in other ways. If eliminating silos is not an option, suggest adding a new management positionsomeone who oversees all content and the coordination between departments.
  • Educate your colleagues. Talk about the benefits of working without silos. You can eliminate the risk of two separate groups producing duplicated or contradictory content, which will increase consistency and allow for reuse. More importantly, your content will have a unified look, feel, and message that improves customer experience and strengthens your brand.

Change can be slow, but it can also start small. Simply getting your colleagues into a collaborative mindset can be a great first step toward a future without silos. If you approach the problem of silos with reality in mind, you will achieve better results.