Many of us have organized and managed our organizations and business operations with the help of a traditional family tree type organization chart. It feels familiar and sometimes it can be effective. An additional ‘benefit’ of it has been that the management has had a map for identification of who to blame when something has gone wrong.

I’ve personally experienced how poorly this model sometimes works: the complexity of the business environment is increasing and it’s often hard to either manage operations effectively or innovate.

Many of us also need to skip the illusion of full control. Better to get use to less unpredictable, more global, mobile and social business environment. The tough challenges lie in the areas of communication, coordination, learning, and leadership.

Suitably I found an old book from my home library, Stafford Beers “Diagnosing the System for Organizations”. Beer discusses the science of organizing effectively – Cybernetics. The book is written 1985 (!) but while browsing it, I was amazed how accurate its statements are. And I’ve always had an odd crush for the System Theory; yes, I’ve read my Schoderbek, Schoderbek & Kefalas!

Here’s an example of Stafford Beer’s thoughts on the organizational structure:

“…if the structure is dysfunctional, then no amount of financial wizardry, of insightful man-management, of business technique, will save the day. Increasingly, it seems to me, the organizational structures we inherited do not work.”

Stafford Beer has also coined a notion I like: “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Very simple and well put. Here’s in more detail what he said in one of his lectures:

”According to the cybernetician the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment or sheer ignorance of circumstances.”

Seeking understanding, identifying the purpose, and reorganizing organizational structure to a more dynamic one with adaptive connectivity both internally and within the ecosystem they are part of. Indeed something for organizations to study.

However, strictly drawn boundaries between the functions, silo-like structures, are still flourishing. Lots of interesting research can be found on this topic. One of my favorites is Harold Jarche, a consultant and researcher I follow on Twitter. He wrote interestingly in his recent blog post:

“The big idea that is catching on and may take shape in 2011 is the integration of organizational support. Enough people are realizing that our compartmentalized approach to supporting work doesn’t help in a highly networked world. Why should HR, IT, Finance, Training, KM, OD, Marketing etc. be separate functions? It’s time to rid our organizations of Taylor’s ghost and I’m detecting a small groundswell of similar sentiments like radically different management.”

I could not agree more with him. The organizational structure, in general and for the support functions, needs fresh approach, a new mindset. Harold Jarche’s passion is in helping organizations re-integrate work and learning. The new mindset must integrate these two. A learning organization can adapt and adopt.

There is naturally a need for tools to support the transformation: social software. These tools support organizations in the creation of trusted relationships which are required for tacit knowledge sharing.  I’ve earlier blogged about the need of knowledge flows instead of knowledge stocks.

It is easy to find excellent thinking and analysis around social software, for example by Dion Hinchcliffe, R ”Ray” Wang, Oscar Berg and rest of the people on my Enterprise 2.0 Twitter list.

I’ve had my share of ‘silo frustration’ and will eagerly continue to study this topic. What exactly should be done then? I’ll leave that to the professionals, but I do believe that on a personal level some of the key areas can be found in this diagram “Principles of being a Creativist” (which I found here):

Accordingly, my new year’s resolution is that I will do my best to follow these Creativist principles.

My open questions are:

  • In addition to the beloved System Integrators do we need Silo Integrators inside the organization? Is building the integration of organizational support a responsibility of the Top Management, Human Resources, or the infamous Somebody Else™? Do we need new roles for this kind of approach?
  • In IT Service Management sphere there’s  lots of talk about Business IT Alignment. Sure, but do we need Business to Business Alignment instead? And I think IT’s business is business.

I’d love to hear your point of view meanwhile I’m trying to learn more!


  1. Doing is done within the context of meaning. System integration destroys meaning. So go forth with that meaningless doing. Kill your company.

  2. Hi Riitta

    This is an interesting subject.

    Sometimes it can be useful to break silos but it is not so easy. When I recommended more internal cooperation a customer commented: We are a large organization, we just cannot talk with everone. That is quite true. A large organization has to be split in to parts, otherwise it will not be efficient. There has to be clear boundaries and there is no simple answer how this should be done.
    I just read an excellent piece Managing the Support Staff Identity Crisis It says:
    When businesses are small, they organize themselves into clear functional units, tapping experts in each respective function to make sure each unit excels. But as they grow, these businesses tend to reorganize toward a model of corporate accountability. Focused tightly on the bottom line, these companies don’t know how to quantify the value of legacy functions, which often evolve into jobs that simply support those departments that drive the bottom line, such as sales…
    Paradoxically, seeing themselves as overhead often causes support function employees to go on the defensive, attempting to prove their worth by becoming corporate bureaucrats who enforce sometimes meaningless rules in an attempt to affect the bottom line. This unfortunately leads them to regress into three successive pathologies: rule makers, naysayers, and innovation blockers.
    Rather than try to contribute ideas, these employees create rules, regulations, and spreadsheets that enable them to prove that they play a role in the company’s bottom line. But too often this basically means that they say no a lot, fixatedly nixing new initiatives, new equipment, or anything novel that would require significant expenditures…
    More often than not, support staffers are unhappy about this role. They would rather identify themselves as necessary and important, not as innovation blockers.

    The above article does NOT talk about IT or ITIL, its mainly about marketing and HR but it sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it?

    There are no easy and simple solutions to these questions. It is not only the CIO who would like to have a seat at the top table, marketing, HR, finace and other want there too. A lot dependes on the type of business and the actual circumstances what is the best role for IT in the company. Sometimes it can be important, even strategic, sometimes it is just a backoffice support function which can easily be outsourced.

    I do think there is room for innovation in how business support is organized.

    1. Aale,

      thank you so much for your super insightful comment!

      Indeed “silos: save or not to save”, this issue is complex. I have read the article you enclosed, it is excellent! A unit (and people) that fight for proving their worth is all too common; I’ve seen it in several organizations I have been working with.

      This sentence in the article – “This unfortunately leads them to regress into three successive pathologies: rule makers, naysayers, and innovation blockers.” – saddens me. And it encourages me to keep on discussing this topic.

      As you know I have spent some years close to IT Service Management people, and I think ITSM folks are more mature to tackle this challenge than for example HR people. Business IT alignment talks have been going on long enough – which is good.

      Thank you, Aale, once again!

  3. Hi Riitta,
    Interesting notice of you! This subject is actually something which has caught my interest some years ago. Of course there are many angles to it. Philosophical the functional organisation structure stems from a deterministic paradigm, which aims at breaking down complex parts. Psychological you may say that the planning and control paradigm origins from a ”man” view that beliefs that people are not capable and need to be controlled (i have no better wird heren)logical and from an, maybe far fetched for some, awareness perspective you could say that the vast majority of mankind, is still stuck in 1st tier levels of consiousness, which bear the morals of punishment and obedience, has a self centered interest,to name a couple of the less flattering characteristics.(ken wilber, Clare graves e.a).This leads to the kind of organisation structures and managementstyles we encounter in many occasions. As Aale states, a lot of manager put up the argument that the organisation is to big have everbody talking to everbody. That is a clear statement and true one level. You could argue that organisations are to big and complex to keep the illusion alive that you can control everything by a centralised management or governance model. The needs to simplify reality to impose a governance model and their KPI’s leads to more complexity and distraction from the important issues like customers, employees and quality of service. I would say tht the ITIL framework is based in a Taylor based thinking paradigm, and is therefor heading for obsoletion. Together with the professional extinction of the people who refuse to see reality and move on to a next level if thinking. However, there are some interesting developments in the field of organisation development that you may want to check out. Also based on cybernetics or ”system thinking” A classic, is the 5th discipline by peter senge, lively in the Finnish Society of Organisational learning, or the U-Theory by Otto Scharmer E.A. Interesting organisational examples are, or I agree, with you and Aale, there is improvement for the way we organise support, or other functions and it start with a different way of seeing the world!

  4. Hi Riitta,
    This is a complex topic. While I agree with you completely on the need to remove silos, I am not sure if this needs to be a physical change in the structure of the organization or a virtual change in the culture. I am also not sure [yet] if designating a ’Silo Integrator’ is the route to go. One thing I am certain – for any kind of integration to happen (structural or otherwise), there has to absolute commitment from Top leadership.

    I have preached and talked on the same subject and I will admit that in the past I leaned on the latter approach – that we really need to break down the barriers (whether it be political, bureaucratic, power etc.) and create a culture of working in an integrated manner. I even drew inspiration from psychiatric literature – e.g from models like ’Transtheoretical Model of Change’.

    The main thing I noticed with this approach was that many organizations don’t have the patience to make massive changes in their culture or structure. They don’t realize that before something can be broken down and refitted, one has to understand the current state and readiness for a change and then plan the restructuring or change in behavior keeping the various stakeholder needs in mind — forcing a change in most cases leads to a rebellion or apathy from lack of motivation.

    Thanks for a good read and some cool references.


    1. Ned & Paul,

      thank you both so much of your insightful and valuable comments! They add value to my humble post, enormously I would say. Great links and point of views, will help me in my thinking. This issue is very complex, and therefore interesting.

      Thank you,

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