Last reviewed 18 September 2013

Mike Sopp discusses how a culture of independent working in organisations can lead to “silo working”, and how this in turn can lead to problems with health and safety management.

It can be argued that, for a health and safety management system to be implemented successfully, there needs to be an understanding of how the business operates, including its organisational model, so potential barriers to the system’s implementation can be identified.

There are many types of business organisational models and theories. Many of these require business activities to operate independently to a degree, with certain activities being the responsibility of separate departments with associated resources.

Within these structures, there is the potential for “silo working” to materialise. This can create challenges for those with responsibility for the implementation of a health and safety management system.

Defining silos

All organisations need to perform effectively if they are to meet the goals and expectations of stakeholders.

To this end, virtually all organisational models, particularly in medium-sized to large businesses, divide activities into business units or departments. This is necessary to focus skills, pool expertise and resources (including management responsibilities, employees and premises) to achieve specific business objectives.

Although this can have clear business benefits, there is a downside in that this type of organisational model can create a culture of independent working.

Organisational silos, or “stove-pipes” as they are also called, can be defined as individual people, departments, or systems conducting business in a vacuum, with a reluctance to integrate their efforts with employees in other functions of the organisation.

There are many influences that propagate a silo mentality, including:

  • external stakeholder demands that require a specific focus on a work-related issue

  • organisational structures (including geographic location) rigidly designed around functional areas that hinder inter-departmental working

  • a culture that is competitive, based on incentives and financial rewards for individuals or teams, rather than organisational or goal-oriented

  • policies and procedures that can be interpreted differently by employees throughout the organisation

  • the personality, attitude and management style of organisational and departmental leaders that either encourage conflict or serve as a poor role model

  • strong departmental priorities and indifference to other departments’ needs.

The internal influences, in particular, can create sub-cultures within the overall business. Indeed, where a silo culture propagates, departments and business units can fragment into even smaller silos that further differentiate groups of employees from the rest of their department.

Silo impacts

With a silo mentality, each division or department tends to focus on its own primary objectives, rather than wider organisational goals.

This can create a downward spiral where divisions or departments do not communicate sufficiently or effectively. These sectors of the business find themselves working in isolation, which has a negative impact on the work process because there is a lack of integration between functions.

With limited communication comes limited intelligence sharing, which can reduce co-operation within the organisation. This, in turn, can create mistrust, resentment and a reciprocal lack of giving. The impact of this is that each division or department feels isolated and focuses all their efforts and resources back into themselves.

Within this culture, there is considerable potential for activities and business processes to duplicate functions, overlap work and work in counterproductive ways. Efforts may not be focused on the real organisational issues, leading to resource wastage.

In summary, silo working can result in breakdowns in communication, co-operation and co-ordination between unit participants and other stakeholders, and the development of fragmented behaviour. All of these are important elements that will impact on whether the health and safety management system is implemented successfully.

Silo working has the potential for misalignment of department objectives and culture with those of the wider organisation, including corporate objectives and culture relating to health and safety.

Silo cultures also tend to keep accountabilities and performance monitoring within those departmental silos that have limited risk architecture in order to give directors or the executive board oversight so that they can ensure health and safety is being aligned with corporate business objectives and strategies.

In the majority of organisations, a devolved responsibility system for health and safety exists, with the health and safety practitioner acting as programme manager and facilitator. This requires defined roles, responsibilities, ownership and accountabilities that enable departments to plan for and implement the health and safety system effectively.

Silo cultures create the potential for negative attitudes and perceptions towards health and safety within departmental sub-cultures and individual management styles. In such circumstances, roles and responsibilities may not be allocated among staff as they should be and funding may be inadequate thus preventing the application of the health and safety management system.

Even where matrix working does take place, for example through a health and safety committee, departmental staff members may not attend, thereby negating matrix working structures.

Breaking down silos

Once silos are constructed, it can be challenging to eliminate them. Employee behaviours within silos have a propensity to become entrenched, which creates a distance between themselves and the wider organisation.

For the health and safety practitioner, the first stage in eliminating silos is to identify, define and explain silos and the points within the health and safety management system where integration between silos could occur. This may include elements such as co-operation in policy or procedural development, consultation arrangements, change management or system implementation projects and accident investigations.

Once the issues are clearly defined, solutions can be formulated around both the needs of the wider organisation and its respective departments. Employees at all levels need to be consulted and given the opportunity to offer suggestions on how to eliminate the silos and to encourage integrated or matrix working. This in itself can break down silos. The core principles are that solutions:

  • create a culture of collaboration through co-operation, consultation and communication

  • clarify roles, responsibilities and accountabilities within the system

  • encourage innovation and reward for improvement.

Specific solutions will, of course, be specific to any given organisation but, in any programme, the support of senior management is essential, both through a commitment to address the negative effects of silos and also through leading by example. Senior managers need to communicate to all departments the core corporate objectives for health and safety, along with the expectations of each department to meet those objectives.

Policies and procedures should explicitly detail the arrangements for collaboration and the activities required of each department to enable this to take place. This should include procedures for identifying and evaluating any shortfalls in collaboration.

Without good communication strategies, solutions will not be effective. Practical steps that help to improve communication must be taken. This should include inter-personal communication rather than remote methods such as use of an intranet or emails. Communication should reinforce the benefits of collaborative working and market success stories.

All too often, the health and practitioner can become a silo worker, with limited contact at a personal level within departments. Becoming more visible can certainly assist in breaking down silos and will enhance the facilitation of collaborative working.

In effect, the solutions introduced to break down silos will also be needed to change the departmental sub-cultures that have developed. Among the most effective ways of achieving both is the allocation of tasks across divisions so that people from different parts of the organisation are encouraged to interact and complement each other’s skills on given projects or segments of work relating to health and safety.

Formal meetings can be set up and groups across divisions that have agendas of communal interest can be introduced so that employees can pool their skills and resources and identify the talent and competencies that other members of the organisation have to offer them.

Further information

Breaking Down Silos or Stovepipes in Organizations, Select Strategy Inc, 2012.