If not fighting silos, then what?

Slowly coming to grips with the insight that fighting silos is barking up the wrong tree. But if not fighting silos, then what?

In a previous article I have argued that there is wisdom in silos. The logic of Business Process Reengineering and process thinking makes perfect sense, but it is only half of the story. It doesn’t address the social fabric that is needed to run those processes. Merely assuming that silos would be abandoned as a consequence of introducing process thinking proved to be wrong. And so we continue to fight silo-thinking without questioning why in the first place.

A different tactic is needed.

As it turns out, organizations that are future-proof are those where the control-dynamics of authority are balanced out with the co-creation-dynamics of influence. In a certain sense,  they represent the extremes of a spectrum.

On one side of the spectrum we find the rigid well-defined organizations where authority is the only dynamic (or rather: ‘the only truth’) available. All activities and practices in those organizations are based on control, because control defines the legitimacy of any transaction. This results in a high level of compliance to standards and indicators. The best way to sustain this dynamic is through rewarding, in other words: by attaching a measurable (and arbitrary) monetary value to all transactions and results.

On the other side of the spectrum we find communities where every notion of top-down control is resisted and abhorred. The closest label that would match these structures would be ‘self-organization’ or ‘a movement‘. This is where communities emerge based on the influence of certain individuals or the need to gather around a certain cause. Most of the transactions in these communities are legitimized by their co-creation value and this results in a higher sense of belonging (sometimes referred to as a higher sense of community). In contrast to sustaining the authority-dynamic, a sense of community is sustained through recognition, in other words: by attaching social validation to all transactions and results.

Now here is the thing: the only way a rigid hierarchy can be sustained is with some sense of belonging, else it would get stuck. And the only way a movement can sustain is by bringing in some organizational elements that represent boundaries and a sense of direction.

So that’s the spectrum in which we operate… and you know what is remarkable? That very thing that I call Social Architecture has always existed to a certain extent, because all of our organizations have a rigidity and a sense of belonging at the same time – all the time. The only difference is that we never articulate or only poorly cultivate the sense of belonging. Communities are rarely developed within hierarchies, because they are seen as opposing and detrimental to the existing organization.

In the sixties, the pioneers of the school of thought called Organization Development already coined the terms Dominant Hierarchy (DH) versus Non-Dominant Hierarchy (NDH). Recently there have been other attempts to describe alternative types of organization such as Holocracy or Niels Pflaeging’s work on how to organize for complexity.

And then here I come with yet another type of organization called Social Architecture… (yes, you can sigh now).

But it’s not yet another type of organization.  Have a look at the drawing of the spectrum and you will discover that every model of organization can be plotted onto that spectrum in terms of how hierarchical or non-hierarchical they are. Next, we need to look at the extent to which the balance of community and hierarchy is articulated and cultivated – because that is where the sweet-spot of social architecture lies.

OK, OK, OK, this is a bit of a theoretical post – I agree – but I need this one in order to get some further thinking done along these lines. Are you still reading at this point? Well kudos to you, you made it to the end of my weird tinkering thoughts!

  • Niels Pflaeging

    Interesting topic and newsletter.
    By the way: I think fighting silos is not a viable approach. Because silos are a symptom, not the problem. They are a symptom of functional division, which also causes other symptoms, such as middle managers, bureaucratization, lack of responsiveness, etc. etc.
    So though silos (no apostroph!) are horrible, you cannot fight them. One must fight functional division, or centralization, or however one mgiht frame the underlying problem. Silos, most certainly, are not the problem itself.
    That is the same as saying: “We have to fight Product Management and Key Account management“ (both: also just symptoms).