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Process-oriented organizations break down the barriers of structural departments and try to avoid functional silos.

I was wondering what silo means here? Is it a metaphor?

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I'd think avoiding dysfunctional silos would be a higher priority than avoiding functional ones. –  Peter Shor Jul 4 '11 at 1:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Yes, silo is being used as a metaphor here, not an actual silo. According to the Oxford Dictionary, there is a literal meaning of silo:

  • a tower or pit on a farm used to store grain.
    ** a pit or other airtight structure in which green crops are compressed and stored as silage.

Then there is also the metaphorical meaning:

  • a system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others

You can read the dictionary entry for another example of a metaphorical usage.

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I have came across this term when I have had attended a workshop on "Balanced Scorecard" for performance measurement in non-for-profit organizations a few years ago. My study manual for the course put it as this: "A functional group or department within an organization that acts as a silo or island in its lack of interaction with other groups and in not sharing its internal data or processes".

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"Silo" in this context needs to be understood along with the word "functional silo":

A functional silo exists when the business processes of a functional unit within the division of labor of an organization focus inwardly on their functional objectives. This becomes problematic when the direction of focus creates barriers that do not serve a reasonable business purpose and negatively impacts the unit's ability to serve their role in the broader mission of the organization.

"Functional silo" is a technical term, and further explained here why process-oriented organizations particularly one to avoid it:

A term used within business process re-engineering (BPR) to denote areas within an organization where managers occupy a privileged position in terms of resources and influence, and where they use this for their own, self-interested, functionally-oriented motives rather than for the wider benefit of the business. BPR recommends the removal of a function-focused approach and its replacement with a process-focused approach, thereby destroying the functional silos and encouraging cross-functional integration.

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I'd never heard of this metaphor, but Wikipedia has. It's a rather strange (to my thinking) metaphor for isolation: I think the origin of the metaphor is the idea that grain silos don't communicate with each other.

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I don't think it's so strange, nor uncommon. I think the metaphor has less to do with communication than with the idea that you keep stuff contained from the outside world, sometimes for protection. In the case of grain silos, it's to protect it from the elements and pests. The metaphor of silos for isolation is not unlike the same metaphor for islands to represent the same thing. –  Cupcake Jul 4 '11 at 1:22
    
Very common usage when talking about computer systems, especially data-storage systems... –  glenn mcdonald Jul 4 '11 at 1:26
    
On second thought, the idea that there's no communication between silos does make sense, but only when used metaphorically, not literally. For example, "Facebook was once a collection of isolated silos of undergraduate students, but nowadays anyone can connect with anyone on Facebook, and those old silos and barriers have broken down." –  Cupcake Jul 4 '11 at 1:27

Yes, silo is a metaphor.

If you think of a grain elevator which is a collection of bins. Every bin could have a unique product and once a product is there it just sits. It should have no interaction with any other silo. The other silos can be emptied shipped refilled with new product, etc. But, it does not affect the silo in question.

In an organization, there are people and groups that behave in the same way. There little piece of the world does not interact with the rest of the organization. They make decisions without consideration of how they affect the rest of the business. Like grain silos, they have (and work to maintain) barriers to groups around them. Typically they are perceived as being less interested in the overall success of the organization than to maintaining their normal state.

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Something to do with fermenting seems to be missing in these explanations. It's a fermenting over time, away from the rest of the influences. For good or bad, is another question.

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