Q&A: Breaking Down IT Silos
One of the most frustrating challenges in IT, historically, is working within silos. Given today’s complexity and specialization throughout IT, it’s more important than ever that teams work together toward goals that benefit the entire business. Following our own advice, I talked with a few SolarWinds IT pros from different backgrounds to learn their challenges and philosophies in breaking down IT silos.
- Chris Greer (CG) is a Senior Systems Engineer at SolarWinds.
- Patrick Hubbard (PH) is a Head Geek™ at SolarWinds with experience in software development, IT operations, and product management.
- Reggie Smith (RS) is a Helpdesk Analyst at SolarWinds.
Q: What is an IT silo in your experience?
CG: “An IT silo is the reluctance to share information with employees of different divisions in the same company. This reduces the organization’s efficiency and can contribute to a damaged culture. It may include a closed-off management system that is unable to operate with any other system.”
PH: “Think of silo meaning closed-off. They are created in IT for lots of reasons—most are negative or at least unfortunate side effects of the culture or the way the business operates. Budget or headcount fiefdoms, priorities and business objectives, risk mitigation, political maneuvering, distrust, and tool choices are common causes. But they can also be unavoidable, for example, as the result of security policies.”
RS: “A silo is a misunderstanding between differing groups. One group may have a certain way to complete tasks and the other group has its own way. This friction often slows down or prevents steady workflow.”
PH: “They’re easy to recognize. Have to fill out a form to talk to a teammate down the hall? Incident or change requests require multiple systems? Lost time to resolution because of handoff latency? Disparate processes for seemingly identical requests? Arguing over data accuracy? Folded arms in multi-team meetings? You’re at the boundary of a silo.”
Q: What are some common challenges with IT silos?
CG: “No collaboration. Their system is their system. If someone from the silo leaves or is terminated, there is very little redundancy to fill the now-huge gap that exists.”
RS: “A common barrier is a lack of priority on fixing the issue. You know you have an issue and it’s affecting your workflow, but because of roles and titles, people don’t have the time. Impromptu requests and things not being documented are two other issues. From a help desk perspective, we only know what you tell us if it’s in a ticket. The end user has done his/her part but they don’t get a follow-up. When they don’t get that, they lose faith and don’t submit tickets in the future. That’s why SLAs are important.”
PH: “A good analogy for IT silo problems might be a poor-quality network. Information between teams is blocked in transfer by rules, there are multiple delays to simple requests requiring retries and status checking by the requestor to push them through, and last, you’ll see lost details, context or other data critical to accuracy.
Additionally, there can be considerable lost opportunity cost as a result of brittleness or change rigidity. When change request friction gets high enough, external teams stop asking for innovation. They take their great ideas and go to a competitor, or at best, just never suggest an idea that might have led to growth. You don’t have to be nimble, but do not let silos paralyze IT teams.”
Q: How can you help fix the challenges silos present?
RS: “The answer is always going to be communication. It’s the gap filler. You have to follow up, be considerate, and be accountable.”
PH: “You could go dictate to the techs like an angry parent, but most of the time siloed teams dislike silos even more than senior management does. Engineers like to change and create, not navigate arbitrary policies. They can be a great resource for input. However, don’t base your resolution plans on complaints; details in venting won’t be as valuable as asking them how it would work in an ideal world. Take those ideas and integrate them into strategy for the business.
Second, wherever possible, standardize tools. IT teams spend a measurable chunk of their day transforming data and reports between formats. This is even more important when designing a service desk and your tools will be shared with non-IT employees from multiple departments. CSAT numbers will always be low if you don’t become more efficient with your service desk over time. Standardized tools allow social learning, and peer-to-peer expertise development.”
CG: “Collaborate with the other teams through meetings and/or collaboration software. Cross train or create cross-functional roles to help with reducing the silos. The better these different teams can understand each other and identify common goals, the more willing everyone will be to find common ground.”
PH: “Some companies have been successful incorporating public rewards for ‘de-siloing.’ By recognizing staff who foster harmony and awareness of management and business priorities, it encourages others to step up. This is especially true on teams that may have become jaded by years of frustration over siloed IT.”
Q: How can different groups within IT help each other?
CG: “Understand the common goal of IT. Develop multi-functional teams for critical launches.”
RS: “It’s important for different groups to set expectations and communicate with each other. Going back to SLAs, they set a standard for how [helpdesk analysts] should perform tasks and help ensure the customer is satisfied with the service they receive. This will then help those different IT groups hold each other accountable for what does and doesn’t get done, and how well assignments are completed.”
PH: “Like DevOps, Agile, and other approaches, breaking down silos requires cultural change, including management. The number one goal should be to build inter-team and intra-team trust. When you know your coworkers have your back, you’re freer to attend to other work at hand. But cultural change requires all the individuals in it to grow, and that can be difficult to achieve.
Here again common tools can open communication lines that have been blocked for years, and adopting a common language subset for everyday work can help. In tech, we seem to identify by rallying around acronyms, but they can become shields and flags for different IT clans.”
Q: What advice can we give IT departments to help break down silos?
RS: “From the help desk perspective, visibility is key. Rebuild assurance to end users so at the end of the day they feel empowered and know more than what they think they do. End users are capable of doing some of the simplest things I’m doing. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking up what they need online and finding a solution.”
PH: “Open borders. First, stop creating yet more firewall policies and procedures to discover you can survive without more. Then begin tearing down walls beginning with the most despised divisions. Often, we inherit silos from someone else, who many times can’t recall why they exist because they also inherited them. Assume that for any long-standing silo, the original business or tech driver behind it no longer applies and it’s overdue for discovery and reassessment.
Be prepared for pushback. While IT pros don’t like silos, they give many a modicum of reassurance and ripping them away can cause angst on the broader team. Socialization before change, ownership, and listening skills are a huge help. Remember you’re changing culture as much as you’re changing reporting relationships and seating.”
CG: “Communication and collaboration, establish cross-functional roles, educate, train and work together.”
PH: “Some teams have also been successful with day-in-the-life programs where admins from one silo spend a couple of days with a teammate in a different silo. Basically, an IT ride-along. It’s an easy way for teams to build compassion for the other. It’s always good to realize ‘the other’ is just like you.”