Learners First: School Culture and the Silo Myth

To paraphrase, Jonathan Swift, a silo is a mirror in which beholders generally discover everybody’s face but their own. In an article published a decade ago, Venkatesh Rao advocated for a reconsideration of the largely pejorative connotations associated with the term “silo”. The use of this term to represent isolated, disconnected, organizational activity has grown steadily in recent years. The implication is clear: a silo is a self-contained or destructive threat to progressive coherence. Much like Rao, however, one wonders if  more careful consideration should not be given to the conditions that lead to the creation or identification of silos in order to fully understand this phenomenon.

According to Rao, a silo is not as terrible an entity as some might lead you to believe. In fact, he suggests they can generally be positive things. Whether a silo is functional or dysfunctional depends on the nature of the organization itself. A healthy silo, “provides a model of efficient operations and healthy exercise of influence to other emerging areas that are not yet established in comfort zones … it provides an environment of healthy skepticism.”

Leandro Herrero adopts an interesting perspective, comparing silos to good and bad cholesterol as a means of highlighting the semantic fallacy of the blanket use of the term. Herrero makes clear that silos are about behaviours, not structures and that a bad silo can only be identified clearly in this context. A ‘bad silo’, he asserts, is one in which, “behaviours negate communication and sharing. When people are defensive, overprotective, excessively tribal and unable to see the ‘common’ idea, then they are in ‘bad silo’ mode.” It is when one considers the behaviors that characterize a silo that the irony of silo-naming begins to emerge. One wonders, for instance, what the difference is between innovation and a healthy silo?

There can be no question but that a dysfunctional silo can interfere with the common vision of an organization and damage the prospect of realizing that vision. A toxic silo may be one in which there is a reluctance – even an active determination – not to share information with other parts of the same organization. It is not untypical in such scenarios for these teams to appear competitive and distrustful of one another. Writing in Forbes, Brent Gleeson contends that dysfunctional silos can largely emanate from leadership teams and that is is here that the issue must be tackled: “A unified leadership team will encourage trust, create empowerment, and break managers out of the ‘my department’ mentality and into the ‘our organization’ mentality.” If we fully embrace the silo logic, then the ideal would be to turn the organization into a single silo. But this would be to lose sight of the common misconception that silos are, de facto, a bad thing.

The so-called silo can be an instrument of disruption. The true danger of organizational sameness is an adherence to the one-dimensional thinking in which institutions with different departments can ultimately – and unwittingly – locate a comfort zone in which to operate.  Any department or individual that challenges this position – through a desire to move forward with pragmatic action or ambition – may find itself labelled a silo. This phenomenon is particularly problematic in the school setting where there is an obligation to encourage individuality, differentiation, risk-taking, divergent voices, innovation, and forward-thinking. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the presence of healthy silos in education may be a good thing, particularly if these entities are aligned with a coherent vision for learners.  Any part of a school organization that is committed to putting learners first – before the system – must be looking to disrupt that organization. The response to such disruption depends largely on organizational culture. The most telling reactions are not that a silo may be impeding progress, but a fear that it is actually driving it. It is here that the Myth of the Silo is born.

Shel Holtz articulates the perspective of many who are weary of the Silo Destruction Movement: “I am officially sick of the silo metaphor and wish it would die. Everywhere you turn, people talk about tearing down silos, busting silos and smashing silos.” Holtz makes clear that silos, in fact, have nothing to do with the problems silo-busting is designed to achieve. An organization that has open communication, free-flowing ideas, trust and a shared vision is what organizations aspire to be, and the trend of blaming the elusive silo for its absence is a cop out: “The problem has nothing to do with silos… It has everything to do with culture. A culture of collaboration can—and often does—thrive in organizations with robust structures.” In fact, a set of competing, porous silos that share the same vision and culture must be preferable to aligned groupthink and stasis. If follows, therefore, that any organizational entity with a weak culture of collaboration and communication may potentially be regarded as a dysfunctional silo.

A healthy silo, however, can disrupt the status quo, it can be an incubator for innovation; challenging conventional thinking, it can serve an essential purpose in driving positive change. Every organization needs a healthy silo, one that is aligned with a common vision. Especially in schools, we should seek to disrupt, to liberate ourselves from a culture in which the term “silo” is viewed as a negative. The fact is, the word “silo” has become a misused term to justify organizational tension or incoherence. Behind the mask of the silo lies the truth. It’s not structures that matter, it’s behaviour. Moreover, it’s the integrity of shared intent around a common vision. We call this culture.

Sometimes a silo is not a silo. Swift would marvel at the irony.

Rao, Venkatesh. “The Silo Reconsidered”. RibbonFarm. June 20, 2007.
Herrero, Leandro. “Good Silos, Bad Silos is Like Good Cholesterol and Bad Cholesterol.” May 16, 2015.
Gleeson, Brent. “The Silo Mentality: How To Break Down The Barriers.” Forbes. October 2, 2013.
Holtz, Shel. “Organizational Silos Don’t Need Busting. They Need Ventilating.”  Holtz: Communication + Technology. March 13, 2014.