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From silo thinking to swarm intelligence – creating digitization

Blog / April 27, 2017 / with Stefan Melbinger
Dismantling silo thinking

One for all and all for one – wouldn’t this mentality be desirable in everyday working life? But the reality is different in most companies. Often departments go their own way, interfaces to other areas are missing. At the latest with the emergence of digitalisation, now also large corporations want to get out of the silos and work like start-ups. The only question is: how can they achieve that?


Us against everyone else: if you ask around among employees and executives, the predominant principle in many companies is*: departments work on their own goals, and supporting others is a secondary concern. “Not my responsibility,” is the phrase of choice when someone doesn’t want to be responsible. On the other hand, projects are often primarily used for one’s own positioning in the company and only on second thought, executed for the good of the company. The consequence: quick decisions are impossible because the search for the responsible decision-maker takes far too long.  Information is not shared, and prejudices against colleagues from other areas grow. Such politically driven approaches ultimately lead to a situation where there are only losers: the employees, the company – and the customers.

Management wants to advance collaboration

For management, such conditions have long been a horror. With digitalization, it is also becoming increasingly important for large corporations to create new products, innovations, and problem solutions. A silo mentality is opposed to this. Rather, it is exchanges, change, and cooperation that bring a company forward in a positive sense. Unbureaucratic initiatives and agile processes are in demand for companies that want to survive in global markets and create urgently needed innovations.

Internal interfaces not only help to develop new ideas and projects but also support knowledge management. With the so-called swarm intelligence, bad ideas are to be filtered out, the good ones develop almost independently. This phenomenon can arise when colleagues from different areas come together and cooperate on productive solutions. In order to achieve this, however, one needs the personal responsibility of the many instead of hierarchical thinking.

How silos work (excerpts from Wikipedia)

(…) Silos are always filled from above, emptied from below. Nevertheless, they do not work according to the first-in-first-out procedure. (…)  The product tapped through the outlet nozzle is therefore a mixture of all the quantities in the silo.

For this reason, in the case of filling a silo in the wrong way, it is absolutely necessary to avoid tapping thoughtlessly from below on the erroneous assumption that the incorrectly filled product will leak out again at the top of the goods that were previously correctly filled into the silo.

Strategies for permeability and cooperation

Ideally, management and HR departments should work together to pave the way for such a permeable innovation culture – accompanied by appropriate communication. It helps to develop a long-term concept with milestones exemplified by management. But even if this is not possible for resource reasons, there is no reason to abandon the goal of better cooperation and a more open culture. Selective points of contact can also contribute to the dismantling of silos – whether this takes place as part of a company event or at lunch with a colleague who was introduced to you at random.

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Examples: Measures for more integration

Networking events & company days: Events that specifically connect colleagues are in demand. It is up to the organizers to integrate specific elements, break down the departmental boundaries, and contribute to the exchange between colleagues from different areas.

Interdepartmental projects:

Cooperation with other areas often creates new ideas and innovative approaches in addition to a better understanding of their everyday work.

Learning Sessions:

Further training should not be limited to individual departments. Rather, it makes more sense to allow employees to participate in the corresponding offerings across the board. In this way, they not only expand their professional competence but also get to know their own organization better.

One-to-ones between colleagues:

Whether over lunch or coffee – an informal one-to-one between colleagues from different units is one of the best working methods to increase understanding – and to create new synergies. When companies help their employees to network with the help of online platforms, for example, they make a very efficient contribution to reducing silos. New bridges are being built – and an important foundation is being laid for mastering the challenges of digitization.

Daimler on the way to a swarm organization

Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler, wants to make the company fit for digitalization. His strategy was announced in the autumn of 2016: to become faster and more flexible, up to 56,000 employees are to work as a swarm organization within a few months and be linked much more closely for certain topics. They then act in an autonomous and networked manner across departmental boundaries.

Daimler is further developing its corporate culture with “Leadership 2020”. It is about more entrepreneurial courage and more personal responsibility for each individual.

* Study by Hays in cooperation with the analysis and consulting company PAC from 2015: Silo and competitive thinking is particularly pronounced in large corporations with over 2000 employees. 83% of respondents in this area think so. 72% of respondents say that digital transformation is blocked by silos.

Build networks via virtual coffee breaks. Mystery Coffee helps you to connect colleagues, foster collaboration, and improve cooperation. Learn more now.

Originally published on April 27, 2017 at 10:00 AM, amended on January 22, 2024 at 5:48 PM


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