man at the end of  a  green tunnel
PHOTO: Marco Bianchetti

If a pandemic-fueled shift to working remotely has shown us anything, it’s that it's difficult to access information when we’re not sitting together in the same office. It’s siloed in Slack chats, saved in Word documents on desktops, or written down on a piece of paper in someone’s home office. So when we’re not working together in the same physical location, how do we work together?

According to the Gartner Reimagine HR Employee Survey, 41% of those surveyed don’t feel connected to their colleagues when working remotely and 26% of employees feel isolated when they work remotely. While it’s easy to blame the lack of water cooler chat or social events, in reality, disconnection can be a result of silos.

When we’re working remotely, it’s particularly easy to fall into a silo. It’s tempting to spend all your time in a Slack or Teams chat with your department, but that leaves you unaware of what’s happening with other departments — which is already challenging enough when you’re remote.

Now that we are moving into the "next normal" of 2021, how do we manage silos? Three things to consider are building knowledge sharing into your culture; eliminating silos with technology; and breaking down process silos with process automation.

Make Knowledge Sharing a Part of Your Company Culture

We all know — or work with — information hoarders. Maybe they hoard information because they think it gives them power. Perhaps they’re hoping that being the “brain” will make them irreplaceable and lead to raises and promotions. Maybe it’s a process issue: They don’t know they need to share information, or there isn’t an easy way to do so. Or maybe they’re trying to hide things that haven’t been done, and hope to avoid negative consequences.

Information silos form when people or departments in your organization don’t share knowledge. No matter the cause, it’s important to understand how these information silos are impacting your business — particularly your customer experience.

As a leader, how can you encourage knowledge sharing and, by extension, the innovation that supports a better customer experience? Here are some techniques to try.

  • Get excited about the opportunity to change — Successful leaders are excited by implementing new technology, breaking down silos, changing established processes, developing new team structures or tackling long-standing assumptions. Whatever the change, you must communicate your enthusiasm and openness to it, so others in your organization can share your excitement.
  • Model knowledge-sharing behavior — Breaking down silos requires the implementation of new technologies, and new ways of working and collaborating. Remove the barriers that make it hard for motivated employees to act in customer-centric ways. Silos across teams can stop even the most dedicated customer advocate from going the extra mile. Make sure that the organization sees you breaking down silos and collaborating, and that you’re rewarding employees who do that, too.
  • Create clear guidelines — As a leader, it’s your job to remind everyone in your organization, regardless of role, that they play an important part in supporting the customer experience. Setting expectations around collaboration — and empowering teams to work together on truly transformative initiatives — is key to eliminating silos.

Related Article: Box's Whitney Bouck: Knowledge Isn't Power, Sharing Is

Consolidate Knowledge and Data Management Systems

Two-thirds of remote workers do not feel engaged and experience little to no facetime with their teammates. And this was in the “before times” — before the pandemic, before social distancing and before balancing remote work and remote schooling took an even greater toll on employees’ ability to connect with their colleagues.

As many of us shifted overnight to remote work, teams quickly deployed spot solutions to solve problems. But the more tools your organization uses, the harder it can be to understand where information is stored — and to make it easily accessible.

If you’re looking to eliminate technology silos, start by doing an inventory to figure out exactly what information is stored where. Ask employees what they struggle with when they try to share knowledge across teams. Do they know what team has what information? Do they know where to look? Do they know what systems and processes each team uses?

Your goal should be to identify how you can provide one central repository of information, with the flexibility to integrate with other collaboration tools, like Microsoft Teams and Slack. An enterprise content management (ECM) system helps manage unstructured information like Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PDFs, making sure they’re available to the right people at the right time.

Whatever system you choose, make sure it’s flexible enough to meet the needs of multiple departments, while still providing IT with control over access and permissions. You’ll also want to make sure it has the flexibility to support digital transformation initiatives, enabling integration with CRM and ERP systems to make sure customer and financial information is centralized. Make sure you are able to support app- and web-based access to truly transform the way the organization manages information and the business processes that require it.

Related Article: Intelligent Information Management: What's in a Name?

Use Automation to Eliminate Process Silos

Many technologies were already driving digital transformation, but COVID-19 brought them to the forefront. Distance learning platforms are now more common, online grocery shopping has become the norm, and telemedicine appointments are paving the way for healthcare organizations to provide more extensive services when facilities are full, or when it’s not advisable for patients to come in-person.

What does digital transformation have to do with eliminating process silos? Well, one key aspect of digital transformation is making processes digital. And taking processes digital is one way to eliminate silos created by inefficient manual tasks.

When a business process has many steps, it can be difficult to eliminate bottlenecks, miscommunication and information mishandling. Business process automation helps by standardizing processes, making sure everyone who needs information has it — at the right point in the process.

Take the finance department: Everyone, regardless of where they work in the organization, has examples of chasing down purchase orders, trying to find an invoice or not being able to track the status of a reimbursement check. Yet Finance has standard steps for all these processes — they’re just invisible to the larger organization. They’re trapped in the “finance silo.”

By automating finance processes, it’s easy to answer questions like:

  • Who needs to approve this request? In which department?
  • What supporting documentation do I need to include?
  • How long will each review and approval take?
  • Can you give me an overview of the process?
  • Where are records of the request and approvals stored? How long are they stored for?

It’s easy to imagine the benefits across departments like HR, marketing or sales. No more mysterious processes where information goes in and maybe, at some point, comes out. Processes are clear and easily communicated. Notifications ensure everyone is in the loop about where the request is in the process. And automating manual processes opens up opportunities for further digital transformation — can you kick off the request process with an electronic form instead of a paper one? What about a self-service app or a portal? Can you take the information gathered through your automated process and tie it in with other key business systems, like your CRM or ERP, to build a more holistic picture of your customers or partners?

Information silos make it impossible for teams to work together and help each other reach strategic goals. They cause bottlenecks that waste time and money, redundancies in staffing and software resources, and inefficiencies in your customer experience.

While we’re still navigating uncharted waters when it comes to the pandemic and remote work, we can do our best to eliminate silos to keep our team members productive.