An illustration of people an information stuck in silos
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Pop quiz! What do email threads, restricted documents, and water-cooler conversations have in common? They are the raw materials with which information silos are built.

We think of silos as rock-solid structures that can (and sometimes do) survive a category five tornado. But in truth, the information silos we encounter at work aren’t as indestructible as they seem. With a few techniques for more open, effective communication and a little bit of moxie, you and your team can beat the system. Ready for some strategic subversion? Let’s do this.

What are information silos and why do you care?

The term “information silo” refers to the phenomenon of data and knowledge getting trapped inside a team or department, preventing others in the organization from accessing it. Although they are sometimes created intentionally for political reasons, more often, they arise accidentally. When you’re wrapped up in the daily hustle and bustle, it’s easy to forget or ignore the importance of sharing relevant information.

Information silos harm teams – and whole companies – in a few ways. First, they thwart productivity by making it tough for you to access the information you need to get the job done. Second, they make it harder for new hires to get up to speed. Last, nothing perpetuates a culture of distrust, politics, and internal competition like information silos. Blech.

Six techniques for open and effective communication at work

In their own words: How open is too open?

If you’re sick of running up against siloed information (and I assume you are, because who isn’t?), leading by example is the name of the game. Chances are, nobody will hassle you for sharing information about your projects, your priorities, your techniques, etc. And chances are, those around you will respond in kind, creating a virtuous cycle of ever-more open communication.

To start chipping away at those pesky silos, follow these high-level practices:

  1. Communicate proactively As soon as you have information that may affect someone else’s work, let them know. This is especially true if they’ll need to change their plans as a result, but also true if the information you’re sharing will speed their project along.
  2. Use email as little as possible On the surface, email seems like a great medium for sharing. But it’s actually a sneaky little silo-builder: there’s no way for anyone except those on the send list to discover the information that may be relevant to them. The more knowledge we lock away in email threads, the longer it takes new hires to start making valuable contributions, and the more likely it is that people will duplicate efforts or repeat mistakes their colleagues have already made.
  3. Make your documents discoverable As with email, knowledge locked away in restricted documents is knowledge wasted. Whether you use Google Docs, Office 365, or a wiki-flavored tool like Confluence, set up your pages and documents to be collaborative. Make them open by default and force yourself to justify restricting them – not the other way around.
  4. Use shared chat rooms liberally Group chat isn’t just for exchanging info with your immediate team. Fire up a Slack channel for specific workstreams, projects, and interests. That way, people from anywhere in the company can pop in to ask a question or get up to speed by scrolling back through the chat history. Even if the channel is short-lived, you and your colleagues still have an easily accessible record to refer back to. Of course, in order for this to help your silo-busting efforts, you need to use those chat channels liberally, too.
  5. Write it down Lots of valuable information gets exchanged verbally in meetings, hallway conversations, etc. But those who didn’t happen to be present are left in the dark. (As a full-time remote employee, I know this pain all too well!) Make a habit of popping into your team’s chat room to share anything relevant so it’s recorded and available for reference later. For bonus points, update or comment on any relevant documents as well.
  6. Keep it brief and make sure it’s relevant Respect your colleagues’ time by proactively sharing information only with those who can put it to use. Maybe it’s only relevant to one or two people. That’s ok! If you adopt the five practices above, others will be able to discover the info on a self-serve basis when they need it.

When you break down information silos, everybody wins

Anyone in the company should be able to discover the information they need to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. This means making information open whenever practical (and sometimes even when it’s not). When you do, you build a culture of trust by removing fears about what may be happening behind closed doors and by helping others understand the reasons behind decisions or initiatives.

Free-flowing information also boosts productivity. Fewer blockers, fewer repeated mistakes, fewer re-inventions of the wheel, and fewer people left out of the loop. To be fair, it can be irritating when people drop feedback on a work in progress before you’re ready for it or without knowing the full context around your work. And this will happen from time to time. But resist the urge to toss their comments aside or view it as a tax on your time. Instead, treat it as an investment in making your work stronger.

Besides, it’s far better than the alternative: uncovering a fatal flaw after it’s too late to do anything about it.

Sick of information silos? Here’s how to break them down