“Breaking down the silos” was a phrase I heard a lot of throughout my Health Management and Policy graduate program. It refers to the absence of communication and collaboration across groups in an organization. Inherently, a counterintuitive habit that may temporarily benefit one group but ultimately stunts the success of the organization. It was my cohort’s neology — we spoke frequently and passionately about ways in which we could “break down the silos” as a means to improving operational efficiencies and quality of care in hospitals.
That was about five years ago. More recently, I found myself engrossed in several sessions at the Healthcare Design Conference in Orlando, Florida, where I heard many presenters and attendees alike chanting the “break down the silos” adage and hailing efforts that aim to do just that. And what we’ve primarily seen in healthcare is an adaptation of the open office trend prevalent in the design and technology industries. These layouts are aimed to promote easy accessibility to colleagues and collaboration, which is a spin-off of the large atrium concept at Pixar that Steve Jobs believed would promote chance encounters among varying disciplines and consequently unplanned collaborations.
However, a recent study “Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices,” by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney, suggests that you can’t break down the silos by forcing people to play in the same sandbox. Kim and de Dear examined privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. The primary problems identified with open offices include the lack of privacy, high noise levels, limitation in space, and temperature control. All of which contribute to worker dissatisfaction and frustration. This is not exactly the state of mind primed for collaboration.
Perhaps we misinterpreted Pixar’s chance encounter methodology. After all, they did create the atrium as the site for collaboration; a neutral space where individuals freely traverse through. The solution may not necessarily be to bring down the silos but provide independent space for the silos to come together naturally. This space needs to be intended for collaboration and communication, as was the atrium at Pixar. What we often see is creation of multidiscipline staff lounges. Not only does it create a space where multiple groups can gather, it creates space efficiencies through economies of scale. However, a staff lounge’s purpose is for reprieve. Inserting an agenda for collaboration to the space intended to allow individuals to “get away” in an industry where breaks are rare can be contentious and detrimental to the culture needed for teamwork.
This dedicated space, then, must be coupled with cultural and operational changes. Individuals must have the time to focus on collaboration with others not immediately in their scope of work. This piece of the solution is the most complex, and perhaps, the reason we’ll probably still be breaking down silos for years to come. But we know that the solution isn’t putting everyone in the same big room, calling it an open, collaboration space, and waiting for the magic to happen. The magic doesn’t just come from breaking down office walls; it comes from giving your team the time, space and freedom to work together.