By Martin Bartonitz

Many companies and administrations are traditionally organized into departments. If these departments become separate entities or even “fiefdoms,” employees will then think solely about themselves or, at most, their own department. Silo mentality is widespread and stands in the way of greater agility in an increasingly dynamic world. What can we do to counteract information silos?

No to information silos

What steps can we take to bring about a change of culture within our company? Culture binds itself to structures, while structures in turn underpin the existing culture. Our project experience has taught us that changing storage structures promotes positive cultural changes.

Companies that want to avoid information silos or silo mentality within their organization while achieving smooth process flows also need to get to grips with document storage. The traditional way of filing documents reflects hierarchies and working culture, and is a good breeding ground for the silo mentality. Figure 1 illustrates this using local government as an example. Documents are usually stored in one location to which all staff in the department have access. Today, these documents are mostly stored on a file server, or maybe even in a departmental folder.

Figure 1: Silo storage by department – storage structure in departmental folders on a file server.

Paper-related processes: a stumbling block

Departmental folders as a storage structure reach their limit if processes go beyond the silos.


Paper as the last information silo has one big disadvantage. If processes such as budgeting go beyond the silos (Figure 2), these process stakeholders have to cope with media breaks. Media breaks refer to when an information medium is changed and the business process is therefore interrupted. This includes data that has to be forwarded in a different form to the one it was received in. The outcome is that not all process stakeholders have access to information from the other department.

So what happens in a case like this? For example, a file is requested via a mailing list. The following figure illustrates the response to the request: “Can someone send me the up-to-date plan?” Ms. Green asks her colleagues Mr. Blue and Ms. Red for a document. Mr. Blue doesn’t have it, Ms. Red replies and then immediately sends the document “To all:”


Figure 3: Searching for a document via a mailing list is cumbersome. It leads to disruptions and multiple copies.

Figure 4: Effects of a decentralized, unsystematic storage system.

Stalling processes, interrupted workflows

The outcome is a process that stalls. Employees involved in the process are interrupted in their workflow because they have to read the message, search for the requested document, and respond to the request. Storing documents multiple times also fills up storage locations. At the same time, there’s another problem: information silos lack transparency and employees don’t know which document is the latest version. Figure 4 illustrates how the negative effects of this are interconnected:

So what’s the answer?

The answer is to store documents in a structured and  process-related way  and to provide access to documents for all process stakeholders on a cross-departmental basis. This ensures that document versions are chronologically arranged for all process stakeholders, which improves collaboration with neighboring departments. If a centralized system is deployed to manage all documents, correspondence, e-mails, or documents produced by other IT systems (such as ERP or CRM systems), this will make every process transparent and traceable for everyone.


Process with Milestones

Processes generally follow a pre-determined pattern. There is a main document that carries the outcome at the end. This is the “viable product” (e.g. a building permit, minutes of a meeting, the budget for the following year, a sales invoice, a contract, etc.). Alongside this is a number of “intermediate products,” which can be directly stored (preferably automatically) in the process-related storage system outlined above. So if a process is launched that is connected to the main document, everyone with read permission will be able to track and search the process in the storage system.

The next figure shows a process in the “Staff Recruitment” process. This process is number 5091 in the administration process map. A process has been created for number 5091. The IT department (“internal customer”) instructs the HR department (“internal service provider”) to fill the vacant position of a system administrator on September 1, 2015.

The employment contract with the new employee is the main document toward which the whole process is geared. In the terminology of process-oriented storage systems, it’s called the “outcome document.” A number of intermediate products are created along the way; related documents are stored in subfolders (the figure uses the images from Windows Explorer; the structure of the enaio document management system looks a little different).

Shared access makes all the difference

The key difference compared to silo storage is summed up in the following statement: “All process stakeholders have access to the process folder.” Who exactly are the process stakeholders? On the one hand, it’s the HR department. And on the other hand, it’s the “internal customer,” in this case the IT department and possibly its representative. These stakeholders no longer receive incoming applications by e-mail or in paper format – they go straight to the process folder. Questions like “How many applications have we had?” or “Has Mr. X been invited for an interview yet?” are redundant. The internal customer can look up the answer themselves. Information is no longer distributed on a preventive basis to a wide circle but can be viewed as needed.

The changed storage structure promotes a new and different working culture. The task of “Looking for a system administrator” has made the HR and IT departments a “process team” that is seeking the best candidate for the job. ECM and DMS systems support cross-departmental collaboration and team culture with features such as subscriptions and follow-ups. Subscriptions to processes or documents inform users about changes. Employees stay in the picture and can react when needed. Follow-ups are created if information is expected in response to a request. Relevant notifications remind users that something needs to happen.

What does storage have to do with economic democracy?

At the beginning of the change process, many stakeholders are afraid that they are losing some of their privacy. Someone in the HR department might say: “What? IT will be able to access our folder?!” Concerns are hidden behind apparently objective arguments like: “Then someone could delete my documents or edit them without me realizing.” The assumed protection of working in a fixed structure is removed. This can unsettle employees. There are projects that fail for this very reason. Whole departments have been known to roundly reject this new philosophy of process teams with joint access to folders so they can continue with the whole rigmarole of sending e-mails.

But organizations that are open to avoiding information silos and want to share information in a transparent way are reporting an immensely positive cultural change.  Doing away with the silo mentality will avoid disparaging comments like “Department XY doesn’t care about our needs” or “Department Z never knows what it wants”; instead, people will be pulling together. The gain in transparency will promote understanding of how things look to other people, and as a result a community will emerge. This equitable approach is an important part of a democratic corporate culture.

The authors:

  • Dr. Martin Bartonitz, Senior Product Manager at OPTIMAL SYSTEMS
  • Edgar Rodehack, Organization Consultant and Coach. His work focuses on sustainable performance and success, agility, and creativity. More about him:
  • Wolf Steinbrecher, Co-founder and CEO of CommonSenseTeam and Consultant for the Introduction of Document Management