If you’ve ever worked for a large organization, you’ve probably had some version of the following experience: A project you’ve been working on for months is now going to be canceled because some other part of the organization was also working on a similar project, and apparently no one in your department even knew. Or: You find out some crucial piece of information or equipment you’ve been desperately searching for actually exists within your company, secretly hoarded by some rival internal faction that wanted to make sure no one else got to play with their proverbial toys.
The experience is so common, there are lots of ways to describe it — the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, turf battles — but the term the financial journalist Gillian Tett chooses in her new book is “silos.” In the past decade “silo-busting” has become one of those buzzy management ideas you find everywhere from start-ups to lefty nonprofits, and in a series of case studies, from the Bank of England to the Chicago Police Department to Facebook, Tett attempts to show us how silos can undermine organizations and how they can be overcome.
But before getting into that, the book begins with an odd and oddly compelling chapter that serves as a kind of methodological pre-buttal. Tett, who has a Ph.D. in social anthropology, wants to show her readers there are other ways of looking at organizations than what they teach at Wharton.
She tells the story of the famed sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who was born to a poor rural family and made it to the École Normale Supérieure. After serving in the brutal Algerian war, he returned to the village of his birth as an “insider-outsider” to study its folkways. At a village dance on a winter night, Bourdieu noticed a group of men, almost all identically dressed, just watching the action. Bourdieu learned that these men were considered “unmarriageable.” They were the eldest sons of farming families, consigned by tradition to tend the farm. In the 1950s, women were seeking men with professions; these once sought-after farmers were now considered low-status and undesirable. By looking where the action wasn’t, Bourdieu revealed something profound about what industrialization was doing to the world of his village. His unique position and genius allowed him to make visible what was invisible to those immersed in what Bourdieu called the “habitus” of a given set of social arrangements.
The section serves as a kind of Anthropology/Sociology 101 for the business class traveler: You, my dear C-suite executive, have all kinds of contingent, even arbitrary category distinctions and ways of ordering the world that are, in their own way, just as exotic as the way an Algerian Berber arranges his households. “Many of the really important patterns we use to classify the world . . . are inherited from our culture,” Tett writes. “They exist at the borders of conscious thought and instinct. They seem natural to us, in the same way our culture appears ‘normal.’ So much so, that we rarely even notice them at all.”
In other words: Read this book and discover your own blind spots.
It’s a promise that the rest of the book doesn’t quite deliver on. For the next nine chapters, Tett offers what amounts to a somewhat uneven management book rather than a work of anthropology or sociology. She’s a first-rate journalist and a good storyteller, but the book suffers from structural constraints outside her control. Part of the achievement of Bourdieu and those who have followed his path is their total immersion, the thousands of hours observing, documenting, living in the world they are chronicling. That’s not possible for Tett, who’s got a day job, so the sourcing often feels very thin. She spends a chapter on the Cleveland Clinic, with 40,000 employees, and never quotes a nurse. Her chapter on Sony is told almost entirely from the perspective of its former C.E.O. Howard Stringer, who struggled (and failed) to get Sony to overcome its silos — or “octopus pots,” the more comprehensible term to the Japanese. Maybe Stringer’s interpretation of events is accurate, maybe not, but Tett’s reliance on his point of view is equivalent to Bourdieu trying to solve the mystery of his village’s unmarried men by interviewing the local mayor.
The chapters on organizations trying to break down internal divisions — Facebook and Cleveland Clinic — are considerably more revealing than those about the risks posed by overly rigid silos. Tett points to Facebook’s creation of a boot camp for new hires, which, according to a Facebook founder, can encourage “cross-team communication and prevent the silos that so commonly spring up in growing engineering organizations.”
Of course, Wall Street banks have boot camps, too, but Facebook takes it further: There are regular all-night hackathons where engineers work intensively on coding problems and rotations in which they can leave their current teams and try something new. Even though that kind of movement is enormously disruptive, one Facebook employee says it’s worth the cost: “When people actively choose to do something, they are going to do better work.” The idea is that if you keep forcing people from different parts of the organization to collide with and interact with one another, you’re going to have a smarter organization.
A similar ethos guides the acclaimed Cleveland Clinic, which was born of an idiosyncratic partnership and today, in spite of its sprawling size, delivers some of the best, most economically efficient care anywhere in the world. In the past decade it has undertaken a huge reorganization that traded traditional medical specializations for “institutes” centered around the parts of the body they treat, and the hospital has risen to the top of the rankings in patient satisfaction.
All of this is interesting enough, but for a book about “silos,” the concept itself is not sufficiently defined or theorized. We’re never given any new language or analytical framework to help us think about when silos are useful and when they’re not, how to identify them, how we might sort them into types. We only hear examples of when they’re bad and when they’ve been transcended or “busted,” in the book’s preferred lingo.
Part of the problem is that the core concept itself is so amorphous. “The word ‘silo’ does not just refer to a physical structure or organization (such as a department),” Tett writes. “It can also be a state of mind. Silos exist in structures. But they exist in our minds and social groups too. Silos breed tribalism. But they also go hand in hand with tunnel vision.” A concept this expansive makes for a weak mechanism of explanation; it’s so comprehensive it threatens to bend toward tautology, like saying “studiousness” makes for a good student.
Since every organization has them, one can imagine finding some evidence that silos — again, whatever that means in any given instance — are to blame in the wake of any particular failure. Looking at the financial crisis, we see that both the Bank of England and UBS had silos that blinded them to impending doom. But this was almost certainly true of banks that overperformed during the credit crisis, like J.P. Morgan, as well. The haziness surrounding the book’s central concept means that silos can often feel more like a post-hoc scapegoat for dysfunction than a predictive indicator of which organizations will succeed.
The lesson, if there is a broadly applicable one, is that people inside organizations should do all they can to view their own practices as contingent, their own categories and tribes as temporary. That’s a profoundly difficult mental discipline to cultivate, and I’m not quite sure how this book is going to help you do it.
THE SILO EFFECT
The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers
By Gillian Tett
290 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.
Chris Hayes is the host of “All In” on MSNBC and an editor at large at The Nation. His book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy,” was published in 2012.