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How Information Silos Lead to Game Over: Lessons From Tetris

Long brick, rotate clockwise. Press up, hard drop. Glance at the queue, anticipate.

During sessions of Tetris for the Nintendo Entertainment System, my anxiety grew in correlation with what I saw on the screen - a growing, colorful shitstorm of bricks that were quickly turning into an unmanageable problem.

Screen with Game Over

I believe the lessons of Tetris (and most video games, for that matter) go far beyond reflexes and spacial awareness. In the case of Tetris, silos lead to towering, mismanaged columns that eventually reach the top of the screen and trigger the dreaded two-word consequence of failure.

Game over.

I used to play Tetris (even though I preferred its gravity-based soulmate Meteos on the Nintendo DS) so much that I’d see glimpses of falling bricks in my sleep after an extended play session. Now that I’m employed, I don’t think about Tetris in my free-time anymore. But like most people, I do daydream about work and the problems I’d like to address on a daily basis.

Incidentally, daydreaming was where the term “silos” originally came from.

Origin Story

The term was first used by Phil Ensor to describe problems in management styles, organizational structures, and job designs he observed at the manufacturing companies he worked for. Inspired by the endless array of silos situated on the bucolic farms he drove past in rural Illinois, Ensor coined it “functional silo syndrome” – and it’s become synonymous with the sprawling amount of isolated information strewn about most enterprises, inaccessible to certain departments, and a definite a barrier to collaboration. The severity of the information silo’ing is strongly correlated with company size, amount of departments, and degree of specialization.

Now, back to Tetris.

Pro Tips

Strategies for Winning

Building silos is one of the worst strategies for most players. It’s so bad that 7-time world Tetris champion Jonas Neubauer‘s first rule is to “play flat”, not vertical1.

I’m convinced that, at least when it comes to data, “playing flat” is a great lesson for businesses as well – and “playing flat” is the opposite of “silo”.

Why Information Silos go Solo

How a silo starts is completely dependent on size, industry, age, and more. But, there are a couple consistent causes that are true of most businesses:

  • Rigid departmental structure with disparate goals
    If communication isn’t informal, encouraged, or a cultural priority there may be no cross-departmental collaboration. In this case, if there aren’t shared goals, there won’t be shared data.
  • Internal competition inspired by a non-collaborative environment
    If departments are disincentivized or flat-out competitive, sharing data can feel like a career limiting move. Decisions are about what’s good for the individual, versus what’s good for the company.
  • Spikes in organizational growth that makes software regulation difficult
    While growth is a good thing, most companies aren’t prepared to scale. Growth creates a need for new technological resources, but without procedure, individuals and departments choose tools sporadically. According to F5, most companies use around 200 applications2.
  • No central authority for technology utilization
    If IT isn’t regulating software use through policy or technology, employees will download whatever they like and information silos will grow exponentially.

Information Silos and Stalled Success

Information silos can cause a variety of “game over” scenarios:

  • Stalled growth
    Organizations that relish in their silos are slower to grow. Employees waste time requesting manual reports, and by the time they get them, sometimes it’s no longer relevant or is out-of-date.
  • Inaccurate data
    Without a single source-of-truth, different systems will probably contain different data. Consider a card processor with two databases; one database will show a transaction, and the other will not, so the customer balance will not be accurate.
  • Increased costs
    Data has to be stored, so duplicate data will inevitably lead to higher hosting costs.
  • Security threats
    Each silo is a potential point of entry for attack and breach.

Create Centers of Excellence (CoE), not Information Silos

A new operating principle called the “center of excellence” operates under the assumption that shared, accessible (and dare I say flat) resources will help employees at all levels of the organization make better decisions – leading to growth, innovation, and success.

I agree.

Essentially, a center of excellence is a cross-departmental team of key stakeholders for a shared goal.

Think about a center of excellence built around customer experience. In some organizations, customer experience would be solely owned by marketing – but, how many departments have some impact on customer experience?

I’d wager it’s all of them, not just marketing. It’s very important that marketing, product, service, and finance share resources to gain a 360-degree view of the customer so that they can all deliver the right message, at the right time, in the right way – and that’s the primary objective of a CoE.

Keys to Un-Siloing Your Organization

  • Obtain conceptual buy-in from leadership
    They will likely be skeptical of the value, risk, and reward, so come armed with evidence
  • Choose a single platform capable of bringing your data together, and flexible enough to fit your business
    We recommend the Salesforce ecosystem due to it’s reliability, flexibility, and scope
  • Ensure the entire company is onboard
    Create a “center of excellence” around the project to involve all departments
  • Promote a culture of sharing and collaboration
  • Hold everyone accountable with an IT strategy focused on enforcement
    Set responsibilities, a cadence for meetings, and a structure for enforcement

Now, I’m off to play another game of Tetris.

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