photo realistic image of knowledge silos and how they prevent knowledge sharing, collaboration and innovation.

Managing knowledge and delivering learning in the hybrid workplace is critical, but can also be challenging. In a series of blogs we look at some of the main issues that often arise, and how that has driven us to design Slick Plus. Last time we looked at the damage caused by knowledge leakage. In this third article, we look at the knowledge silos that occur, especially in larger organisations.

Have you ever had one of those nightmare calls where you’re speaking to customer services to get an issue resolved and you keep on getting passed from department to department?

Nobody seems to know what the other department actually does and each time you get forwarded you have to explain the problem again…and then you end up back at the team where you started! Not only is this very frustrating but you’ve wasted valuable time listening to the same dreadful piped music. 

What are knowledge silos?

This kind of bad customer experience is common in companies where knowledge silos are rife. There is where information, knowledge and skills across an organisation are not shared or accessible; instead, they are isolated and compartmentalized, leading to deep-seated issues, fragmented processes and yes, poor customer service.

Knowledge silos lead to knowledge gaps where key groups of employees can’t access (or possibly completely unaware about the existence of) the knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively.

In the case of the call, it’s unlikely to be the fault of the customer agents you spoke to. They probably did their best. But perhaps they’ve had no training to deal with your problem or may not have had access to a knowledge base where they could quickly retrieve the answer or to a system where they could ask a colleague, or find out who’s best placed to deal with the issue.

What damage do knowledge silos create?

If you think knowledge silos are bad for customers, they’re even more frustrating for the people who work there.

At an individual level, they limit what people can achieve in their roles. They waste time trying to find information or knowledge that is siloed; even trying to find the right expert can be hugely time-consuming. There have been various estimates of how much time is actually spent on fruitless searching, with some research indicating that knowledge workers can waste almost as much as 25% of their working day, with time wasted even higher for senior executives.

Check out our calculator to help you identify some indicators about how much this wasted time is costing your organisation.

Knowledge silos and gaps are also a barrier to learning and development, where there are less opportunities to access the right skills and expertise. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2023 Workplace Report, 29% of employees identify “opportunities to learn and develop new skills” as an important factor in considering a new job, one of the top five factors.

And ultimately knowledge silos lead to a poor and ultimately frustrating employee experience, putting the brakes on achieving great results, limiting opportunities for personal and professional growth, preventing skills mobility, creating multiple examples of the duplication of effort and making it harder to connect meaningfully with peers.

Why are there knowledge silos?

Knowledge silos are endemic in medium and larger organisations. They come in all shapes and sizes: along location and geographical lines, across the organisational structure with different teams and divisions, across types of job such as back office and frontline workers, by different languages spoken, hierarchical, contractual, and so on. 

And if you thought the “what” sounds messy, the “why” is equally complicated. Knowledge silos form and are then amplified and strengthened for a number of overlapping reasons: 

Practical: practical reasons such as a lack of an overarching system or technology to share knowledge. For example, our customer agents on our call couldn’t access a centralised knowledge or collaboration system that could have supported them to resolve the issue.

Structural: departments, functions, and teams often sit on their knowledge and what they are learning. Looking to our customer agents again, perhaps they are outsourced, working from home or located separately from the product team, and never get opportunities to learn about what other teams across the organisation actually do.  This can be especially amplified if organisations are struggling to adapt to effectively manage hybrid, flexible and asynchronous workplace models.

Cultural: an organisation’s culture and its sub-cultures can result in differences in attitudes to sharing knowledge, as well as a general reluctance to share – for example in very risk-averse organisations where there might be strict protocols around keeping information private. For instance, is your culture more ‘information is power’ or ‘knowledge is influence’? 

Political: sometimes leaders put the brakes on knowledge sharing initiatives for political reasons, for example due to disagreements or even rivalries created by internal marketplaces.

All of the above conspire to make it difficult for an individual to share what they know, creating a multitude of knowledge bottlenecks and therefore missed opportunities. (We’ll be covering bottlenecks in more detail in our next blog.)

Busting knowledge silos and bridging knowledge gaps

But knowledge silos and gaps are not inevitable. This is not a wicked problem which is impossible to tackle. There are things that can be done and even moving a little bit in the right direction can make a significant improvement to driving efficiency, upskilling employees and improving culture, team by team, process by process, community by community..

Busting those silos and bridging those gaps doesn’t happen overnight but requires a holistic and strategic approach. At a high level here are some of the steps that usually need to be in place to move the need on removing knowledge silos.

  • Understanding the problem and seeing the potential

Recognising the problem and understanding its extent is important. This can kick-start the right conversations, create the momentum to improve knowledge sharing and help identify the tactics and interventions that will make a difference.

  • Getting leadership on side

Knowledge silos are partly cultural. Removing them requires behavioural change. Leadership and senior management influence employee behaviour and need to be on side and lead the way.

In some organisations this is starting to happen. In a January 2024 survey of global KM teams from APQC, 38% reported that “leaders are recognising the risk of knowledge gaps and silos”, but that means there is still a lot of work to do.

  • Change management

Changing behaviour also requires active change management. Here a range of approaches from communications to having active support to using champions to having the right training needs to be in place.

  • Enabling technology

Knowledge silos are never solely a technology issue. But technology is an enabler to move forward. An oft-quoted article from the McKinsey Global Institute states that when knowledge workers have access to the kind of social technologies that can successfully bridge knowledge silos they can raise their productivity by between 20 to 25%. It also notes that “a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 percent, the time employees spend searching for company information.”

The central message of this article has stood the test of time: Silo-busting social technologies like Slick Plus increase productivity. They help to bridge the divides across organisational structures, geographies, hierarchies, systems and forge a greater sense of collegiality, connection and cooperation across teams.

Starting small, but starting somewhere

Everybody is busy and might think they have little time or head space to be busting knowledge silos. But when they witness a process that is transformed, and feel energized by a professional community that is sharing knowledge, or get a taste of a refreshingly different (and human) social technology, the benefit becomes clearer. Starting small with a pilot, launching a community of purpose-driven peers or overhauling a process and then learning from this, can lead to further and positive change.  

Stewardship

All of the above doesn’t happen on its own. Having a knowledge management team, change management roles or learning teams that are actively engaged in busting knowledge silos and filling those gaps is essential. You need the right people in place with the right mandate (what one of our social learning heroes, Etienne Wenger refers to as ‘technology stewards’). 

Silo busters are go!

Large organisations have multiple knowledge silos that lead to knowledge gaps, but there’s actions that can be taken to bust them and fill the gaps.

In the next part of this blog series we’re going to focus on the knowledge bottlenecks that stop individuals sharing what they know and converting it instead into collective learning. We will also look at the power of communities (of practice) and other purpose-driven groups that can help to uncork those bottle necks and inspire collective learning, action and innovation.

Interested to learn more? Please get in touch to talk – we love to bust those knowledge silos! 🙂

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