Keywords for the Age of Austerity 7: The Silo

In the Harvard Business Review—the online resource for businesspeople who like their platitudes burnished with a little crimson—one can read a blog post by Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s business school that begins fairly incomprehensibly, at least for me:

When we ask executives, What is the number one innovation killer at your company?, one of the first words we always hear, always, is “silos!” Recently, one executive even muttered, “fortresses.” … Innovation is the Trojan Horse that can be sent in to break down silos.

Elsewhere innovation is described as “the wheels on the Trojan Horse,” so clearly they don’t spend much time on metaphor at Dartmouth College’s School of Business. (Why a Trojan Horse anyway? Why all the stealth, Innovation?)

Unlike most of the other words in this series, the “silo” is a buzzword, a new coinage, often used to impress, that hasn’t widely penetrated the language of non-specialist media. According to the BYU Corpus of American English, the word still refers mostly to grain storage facilities and ballistic missile launchers.

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A patch worn by the Air Force crews that manage remote nuclear misslle launch sites in the West. Silos are lonely and cold, hence the slippers. (via http://formerspook.blogspot.com/2011/01/todays-reading-assignment.html)

In Govindarajan’s post, the “silo” is used in its business sense, as the implacable enemy the armies of “innovation” are raised against. The term describes the vertical organization of a particular department in a firm: the sales and technical support offices, for example, are “silos” if they fail to integrate with each other and communicate effectively. As we can already see from Govindarajan’s invocation of the organizing myth of “innovation,” in which “silo” takes its meaning, the term also takes on a broader ideological cast. That is, the idea of the “silo” describes not just a means of better organizing a bureaucracy but a logic that justifies and defends it, through the heroic, democratic, silo-busting figure of “the innovator.” 

And in business prose, you will find, silos are always “busted.” Thus Govindarajan’s Trojan War military metaphor, though confusing, wasn’t entirely misplaced. The combination of “silo” and “busting” is borrowed from the military: a “silo-buster” is “a missile which can destroy an enemy missile in its silo,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As an author in the Arizona Republic’s business section explains:

A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve.

Silos, in other words, derive from employee groups that are insufficiently collaborative and overly autonomous. The author goes on, describing the role of the “silo-busting” manager:

If there are many rules, then she will manage employees very formally, ensuring those rules are followed and the culture is very orderly. If there are fewer rules, employees enjoy a flexible culture. The formal culture with strict rules is more likely to have the cultural problem of silos.

Here we have a contradiction inherent in the innovation/entrepreneur myth, which celebrates heroic individualism and fetishizes “team-building” and collaboration. On the one hand, those with a “silo mentality” are too isolated, and on the other hand they are insufficiently invidualistic. The silo-buster is a canny military officer; she is also a flexible “teammate.” Silos are disciplined; innovative workplaces are “nimble.”

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The Silo Killer (2002): It’s Harvest Time

The silo is a metaphor that connotes secrecy and confinement, which makes missile silos popular settings for secret supervillain lairs in movies and video games. The silo’s isolation also summons the urbanite’s contempt for the untutored country bumpkin. Reflecting an impression of agriculture likely gleaned from the Interstate, the “silo” is outmoded and not “smart.” It’s a good example of what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” the framing of social problems as technical or managerial ones, that can be fixed with new technologies or a more innovative “leader.” A popular use of “silo” in the political realm, for example, attributes the failures of the U.S. healthcare system not to patient access or the private insurance industry, but to the bureaucratic “silos” inside hospitals. In academia—where most of these corporate-driven keywords either originated or have since have found a happy home—“silos” are departments that are deemed too labor-intensive or that resist (or are seen to resist) “interdisciplinarity” or  “flexibility.” Russian departments: you are probably silos. Centers for Innovation and Entrepreneurship: you are probably not silos. 

Like “stakeholder,” the silo promotes an ideal of firms as horizontal, self-regulating organizations, organized by cooperation and voluntarism. As this clip from the UK version of The Office makes so painfully and hilariously clear, this bargain is a fantasy. One can’t to make a “flexible” culture in a hierarchical enterprise without, at some level, coercively ordering it, just as there is no “team” without a coach who writes the game plans, sets the roster, and mugs for the camera in the post-game interview. Here, the self-involved boss played by Ricky Gervais, who imagines himself a beloved silo-buster, commandeers an office “team-building” exercise to force his  artistic genius on his employees and a bewildered consultant.

Despite its incongruously agricultural reference, the silo reflects business rhetoric’s celebration of the military and the artist, its veneration of authoritarianism (Machiavelli is a popular “silo-busting” role model on business blogs) and a modernist ideal of artistic vision. Remember: those who fail to innovate shall be confined to the silo.

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