Silo Thinking: Does it still exist? Does it help or hinder organisations?


Have you found silo thinking in your organisation?

As ACMP members, we are obsessed with ‘transforming the way we deliver change” and in operationalising this manifesto, one aspect crops up regularly: ‘silo thinking’. It begs the question: is this still a characteristic of business functioning. Boundaries may lead to insular mindsets that inhibit sharing or collaboration between different levels within the organisation, or worse, they could lead to finger-pointing and turf wars. The incitement to “bust” or “break down” silos appears frequently both in practitioner and scholarly journals according Vantrappen and Wirtz (2021).

A quick survey of some said research journals does indeed reflect the perception that ‘silo thinking’ is rife in many organisations and sectors, with some examples including healthcare (Reidy et al, 2023; King & Shaw, 2022); education (King-Smith, Watkins, & Hyun-Han, 2020); the public sector (Lidman, Gustavsson, & Erkisson, 2023); and even professional football (Manoli & Hodgkinson, 2019).

Silo thinking features

In essence a ‘silo’ is something – generally knowledge – that is isolated from others (Cromity & Stricker, 2011). Whilst not a physical barrier as such, it is a mentality and excessively insular mind-set which shapes behaviors and ways of working, and creates ‘boundaries’ (de Waal, Weaver, Day & van der Heijden, 2019). Common themes emanating from a look at the research suggests functional responsibilities create barriers and these are exacerbated by failures in communication. And in today’s business push for news ways of working, such rigidity of internal mindset and external behaviours can frustrate the best attempts to facilitate transformational change. 

The root cause of most organizational problems is that people naturally focus inward, prioritizing their own needs, challenges, and objectives without an awareness of the impact on others. Organizations can only resolve internal problems and achieve breakthrough results by maximizing the extent to which their employees work with an outward mindset—when they consider the impact of their actions on others and focus on organizational success (Arbinger Institute, author of the two international best sellers – Leadership & Self Deception; and The Anatomy of Peace).

Silo thinking is OK

A divergent view holds that silos exist for good reason: they aggregate expertise, assign accountability, and provide a sense of identity (Vantrappen & Wirtz, 2021). Although they have some undesirable consequences, rather than attempting to dismantle them (and that’s clearly not working as the literature suggests), there may be a new way of working with silos such as changing mindset, building bridges, and instituting checks/balances (Vantrappen & Wirtz, 2021).

Ways to work with silos

Is it simply a matter of a better quality of communication? Understanding and applying a different mindset (Arbinger, 2023)? More time to share ideas and issues (Cromity & Stricker, 2011)? Do we need inter-organisational knowledge brokers to build knowledge sharing bridges (Kezar & Holcombe, 2018; Vantrappen & Wirtz, 2021)? Or do we wait for the AI revolution to ‘unchain’ silo thinking such that knowledge can be readily share across all organisational boundaries (Kumari et al, 2023).


Arbinger Institute (2023). Conflict Resolution.

Cromity, J. & Stricker, U. (2011). Silo persistence: it’s not the technology, it’s the culture! New Review of Information Networking, 16, 167-184. doi: 10.1080/13614576.2011.619924 

de Waal, A., Weaver, M., Day, T. & van der Heijden, B. (2019). Silo-busting: overcoming the greatest threat to organizational performance. Sustainability, 11, 6860. doi:10.3390/su11236860 

Kezar, A. & Holcombe, E. (2018) How organizational silos and bridges shape student success: The CSU STEM Collaboratives Project. The Magazine of Higher Learning 50(2), 48-56.

King, O. & Shaw, N. (2022). ‘…breaks down silos’: allied health clinicians perceptions of informal interprofessional interactions in the healthcare workplace. Health Sociology Review, 31(1), 47–63. 

King-Smith, A., Watkins, K. & Hyun-Han, S. (2020). From silos to solutions: how one district is building a culture of collaboration and learning between school principals and central office leaders. European Journal of Education, 55, 58-75. doi: 10.1111/ejed.12382 

Kumari, Y., Raj, K., Pal, D.K., Moharana, A., Subramaniyan, V. (2022). Leveraging artificial intelligence in patient care. In R. Malviya, N. Chilamkurti, S. Sundram, R.K. Dhanarai, & B. Balusamy (Eds.) Artificial Intelligence for Health 4.0: Challenges and Applications, 1st Ed, River Publishers, Denmark. 

Lidman, L., Gustavsson, M. & Erkisson, A. (2023). Learning and employee driven innovation in the public sector – the interplay between employee engagement and organisational conditions. Journal of Workplace Learning, 35(9), 86-100. doi: 10.1108/JWL-05-2022-0055 

Manoli, A & Hodgkinson, I (2019). Exploring internal organisational communication dynamics in the professional football industry. European Journal of Marketing, 55(11), 2894-2916. doi: 10.1108/EJM-05-2019-0422 

Vantrappen, H. & Wirtz, F. (2021). Making silos work for your organisation. Harvard Business Review,

Reidy, C., A’Court, C., Jenkins, W., Jani, A., Ramos, A., Morys-Carter, M. & Papoutsi, C. (2023). The plural of silo is not ecosystem’: Qualitative study on the role of innovation ecosystems in supporting ‘Internet of Things’ applications in health and care. Digital Health, 9: 1–17. doi: 10.1177/20552076221147114.

By Dr Andrea Howell and Mike Bengough

Directors of Hoben Workplace Consulting and members/joint leaders of the Learning & Development Division of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) – ANZ branch.

Key Messages:

  • Determine where silos exist in your organisation: assess their nature, their outcome, and possible alternatives.
  • Link silos via changing mindset, better communication, building knowledge bridges, and utilising AI. 

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