At work, certain skills can’t belong to just a few people

Silos and the clustering of skills at work

Here’s a tricky little thing about work and the future of work: we spent most of the past century building jobs around specialized skills — i.e. “He’s an IT guy!” or “She’s a designer!” — but, in the process, we created a potentially-unwieldy amount of silos. Silos worked for many years, and often still do work, because then there’s a clear “division leader/VP” and a clear assignment of responsibilities throughout (well, mostly; the sad truth is that oftentimes people have no idea what half the rest of their silo even does.)

Now we’ve got a new reality, though: business is supposedly moving faster than ever, and in order to achieve bullshit concepts like “A Customer-Focused Culture,” we need to move away from command-and-control, silo-driven management and move towards something where people worry less about “I own this process!” and worry more about “How can we achieve real collaboration here, so that everyone who needs to work on something knows about it from the beginning?” This is how e-mails should be structured and how meetings should be structured —  the goals should be providing clarity, getting people on the same page, and understanding that it’s a team effort tied to a company purpose. It’s not driven by one silo or one manager, even if they want to come off that way to showcase their own value.

Of course, I’m trying to speak logically here — and work isn’t a logical place, it’s an emotional one.

Here’s where we net out.

If you want to move projects, tasks, and goals/growth along quickly, you basically need aligned teams. Otherwise here’s what happens: something starts in marketing — let’s say the idea for a new e-mail marketing database or whatever. That resides in marketing for a while, and eventually it needs to move to IT or database or consumer or some other division. Eventually, even more people will need to be looped in. That’s how the whole thing works; nothing really belongs to one person or one team. Everything is cross-connected, but the way we organize people and departments hasn’t caught up on that side.

You kinda need this idea of a ‘networked’ culture, or a hub-culture, or something along those lines. People have to report and chase targets for different managers and teams. It can’t all be clustered.

There’s a recent article from Northwestern on whether ‘creativity’ at work — which is a farce half the time, because most people at work are digital paper-pushers and not truly creative types, IMHO — and whether it stifles innovation and leads to entitlement. It’s an interesting article. It’s also super relevant now because Apple has about a trillion dollars, and so every CEO worth his/her salt is chasing Apple models — which they probably only somewhat understand anyway — and they’re saying “We need more creative, innovative types!”

Couple of problems with that: instead of thinking about how to get creative types, you’re gonna run around screaming about headcount and, let’s be honest, the hiring process sucks.

Alright, so in terms of this Northwestern article, here’s the essential paragraph:

Future research may determine that this advice applies to other attributes, too, such as wealth, social status, or managerial status. If a firm fosters a culture in which leadership skills or tech savviness are considered the purview of the few, it may also foster entitlement, dishonesty, or both in those who possess them.

Ding ding ding. There’s the cornerstone problem.

If you think an element like “creativity” or “leadership skills” or “finance skills” or “project management” is only reserved for 3-4 people in a company, that’s a core problem. See above? It can foster entitlement, dishonesty, or both. That’s a problem. You need a certain degree of transparency — maybe not around your financial metrics, but around everything else at least — in a company right now to succeed. That’s what younger employees (and a wide swath of your customers) are going to want.

I’m also not saying that you need to run around screaming about “A Culture Of Creativity” or “A Culture Where Everyone Is A Leader,” because those things don’t exist. Companies have internal Bell Curves. Certain people do grunt, rank-and-file work. Certain people do transactional, personnel work. Certain people do creative work. Certain people do revenue-facing work. That’s how it works, and mostly, that’s how it has to work — we’re not remotely close to hiring models where “we just select the best, smartest person” and turn them loose on a variety of tasks. People still want paper resumes in an age of LinkedIn, for chrissakes! You think you can get some old-school HR-type to “hire the best person?” Nope.

Point being: projects/tasks/deliverables are the result of the intersection of multiple people these days. They’re not clustered off in Silo A or B. You need to think about that, and then you need to structure who reports where and how in those ways. Having clusters of experts — and “only those people can possibly know/understand this” — is pointless, useless, and not aligned with how companies need to chase success these days.


Ted Bauer

Reply If You'd Like