Silos Old and New and an Ugly Buzzword – Unsiloing, by Angela Caldin

Silo Park on Auckland’s Waterfront

Silo Park at the far end of Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter is one of my favourite places on the city waterfront. On Friday evenings in the summer there’s a lively event down there with food and drink stalls and, when it gets dark, a film is projected onto one of the giant silos. People lie on the grass enjoying the balmy evening.

The silos at Silo Park are giant cylindrical containers which used to hold cement. Silo Seven was one of those that made up the tank farm responsible for holding substantial amounts of the cement that built this beautiful city. It’s onto Silo Seven that the films are projected.

Origins of the Word Silo

Silo is a lovely word which comes from the Spanish silo, from the Latin sirum and the Greek siros ‘a pit to keep corn in’. Or, perhaps, the Spanish word might be from a pre-Roman Iberian language word represented by Basque zilozulo ‘ a dugout, cave or shelter for keeping grain’. The meaning ‘underground housing and launch tube for a guided missile’ dates from about 1958.

But this lovely word has crept into the workplace in a hideous way. If you are accused of ‘working in a silo’ then it means that you are seen as a workplace hermit seriously lacking in communication and people skills. Working in a silo is bad and you need to get out more, and see what other people are up to. If you aim to be a successful and upwardly mobile employee you’ll want to leave your  hermetically sealed silo and move around so that your talents can flourish, and you can cultivate new skills.

The idea is that if you’re an engineering project manager, you might go off to work with a marketing team for a while; or, if your career so far has been in sales, you might spend some time to learn the ins and outs of manufacturing. It seems an eminently sensible thing to do and the best way to run a business. It’s also true that CEOs are worried about having enough qualified people to fill leadership roles as baby-boomers retire, so big companies now are actively analysing where the gaps are likely to be, and which skills they need to develop in their staff.

The Concept of Unsiloing/Desiloing

When managers begin to cooperate across departments, and share staff, skills and resources, they are said to be unsiloing or sometimes desiloing. So first, the lovely noun silo has been turned into a verb ‘to silo’, and then the verb has been given a negative to arrive at to unsilo or to desilo. Why not say co-operate, collaborate or even work together? The answer is that these words sound too ordinary and too simple; there isn’t enough of the modish, arcane jargon about them.

We can all understand that working in a silo is a bad thing leading to lack of co-operation and lowered productivity. We can equally well understand that collaboration leads to innovation, better communication, multiple networks, greater productivity, efficient and effective personnel and increased trust. Surely  the cause of all these benefits deserves a better name? I prefer the expression joined-up working which conveys the idea of co-operation and collaboration in a simpler, clearer way. It’s often used in the context of different organisations working together, but it could equally well be used for departments within one organisation. But it seems that business prefers newly-coined, clumsy words which can be added to the ever increasing lists of those who like to play Business Bullshit Bingo during meetings.

2 Comments on “Silos Old and New and an Ugly Buzzword – Unsiloing, by Angela Caldin

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