Smash Silos to Improve Cross-Functional Communication

kessinger_ November 3, 2017 By: Kristen Kessinger

Do work silos exist within your organization? To create “boundaryless organizations,” association leaders must first understand how work silos are created and can be broken down.

On a farm, silos serve a critical purpose—they keep grain protected and prevent pests. But in an association, work silos are bad. They keep critical information restricted and inhibit collaboration between colleagues.

Breaking down work silos has been on association leaders’ minds for more than 25 years, ever since Jack Welch first advocated for a “boundaryless organization.

Still, organizations continue to struggle with the elimination of these boundaries. To understand how work silos are created and can be broken down, it helps to learn by example from a few different associations.

How Silos Are Built

Silos can be caused by a number of factors, from physical separation—whether that means remote staff who aren’t actively engaged in the association culture or even just a poorly designed office space—to having a secretive management team.

Specifically, silos separating communications and marketing teams from the rest of the organization can be formed when other business units don’t bring the two departments into a project until the very end, or silos can occur between communications and marketing teams when project plans aren’t shared and integrated together.

“One of the most important reasons for eliminating silos is that clearer communication among staff can create stronger, more coherent organizational focus and messaging,” says Eileen Denne, director of corporate communications at the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). “The stronger focus and messaging translates into members who better understand what the association can do for them.”

How Silos Are Eliminated

Associations often use a variety of tools and tactics to help break down work silos. Denne credits the following tools for helping to prevent or eliminate boundaries at AAPA:

  • Chat or messaging services, such as Lync, Jabber, and Slack, that allow for easy internal conversations.
  • Project management software, such as Basecamp and Microsoft Teams, to share project plans, schedules, and files.
  • Weekly staff meetings, which allow for routine check-ins.
  • An internal employee newsletter to keep staff up-to-date on project goals and milestones.
  • A strategic planning process that involves the entire organization.
  • Annual offsite retreats with the communications and marketing teams to facilitate personal connections and collaboration.
  • Consistent information sharing and accountability across all departments.
  • An organizational strategic content calendar managed by an editorial advisory team and composed of representatives from each of AAPA’s 12 departments.
Silos can be caused by a number of factors, from physical separation—whether that means remote staff who aren’t actively engaged in the association culture or even just a poorly designed office space—to having a secretive management team.

Together, AAPA’s editorial advisory team shares what is relevant or important to members, based on whether the content has the potential to generate revenue, promote organizational visibility and awareness, or align with a current marketing campaign. This approach helps the teams to coordinate efforts and often conversations from one initiative will dovetail nicely with another department’s activities.

“We meet monthly to plan and prioritize content for our website and social channels,” Denne says. “The cross-pollination of ideas makes for more compelling, interesting, and strategic content in addition to breaking down silos.”

Meanwhile, at the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), Vice President of Marketing and Communications Gary Van Prooyen and his teams participate in a similar planning process, developing an association-wide editorial calendar and integrated annual plans to support its programs.

“The success of integrated marketing depends upon real-time communications,” Van Prooyen says. “If you expect to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time, then you must coordinate brand building, marketing activation and strategic communications around a singular strategy and shared metrics.”

ISACA also develops cross-functional teams for special initiatives, like its upcoming 50th anniversary. Its “Team 50” includes representatives from nearly all departments to ensure the milestone celebration is an association-wide endeavor, and everyone is engaged with the strategy, goals, and related projects.

At the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, an organization-wide communications audit led by members of both the communications and marketing teams has helped break barriers between those departments and the rest of AAOS.

“The audit helps illustrate the entire scope of communications to new leadership. The ultimate goal for this project is the creation of a communications strategy that includes opportunities for collaboration and recommendations for the organization as the role of the hybrid communicator-marketer-PR person evolves,” says Lauren Pearson Riley, AAOS’s manager of public and media relations.

Often, association leaders are quick to say that silos don’t exist within their organization, but the only way to know for certain is to ask your staff. Consider adding a question about communication and collaboration in a staff survey to see if barriers exist. If the data shows there are silos, take a cue from these associations and make a plan to knock them down.

Kristen Kessinger

Kristen Kessinger is senior manager of media relations for the Information Systems Audit and Control Association in Chicago.