In small enterprises, job roles can be very blurry. Since there are few people working for the company, the boundary of each job role tends to flex in order to meet demand. Over time, and as organisations grow, it is likely that this will change and each individual’s role will become more tightly defined. How tightly defined each role becomes depends on a number of factors including structure, culture and leadership style. However, in midsize and larger companies it’s likely that there will be less flex in each role, with each individual having a clearly defined role.
Clearer role boundaries certainly have significant advantages, yet over time a hidden problem can emerge. Sometimes individuals in organisations start to ‘hoard’ information, knowledge and data that is relevant for their specific role. Perhaps they are the only person in the organisation who has access to the data that is needed to create a particular sales report. Or perhaps they are the only worker who knows how to operate a certain system or process. There are various reasons why an individual might hoard information in this way – for some it might be completely unintentional. In some cases it might be down to circumstance, with not enough staff available to support them. However, in other cases an individual might subscribe to the view that ‘knowledge is power’, and therefore continue to intentionally find ways of absorbing more and more data, information and knowledge.
When silos of this type emerge, for whatever reason, there are real organisational risks attached. However efficient and effective a particular individual within an organisation is, it is incredibly problematic when they are the only person able to execute a particular process or tap into a particular data source. This creates a key-person dependency and a potential bottleneck. If that person goes on an extended vacation, for example, the organisation may suffer as a result.
One factor at the core of this issue is tacit knowledge – unstructured information that stakeholders within our organisation know, but isn’t documented anywhere. It is the kind of knowledge that stakeholders might find difficult to explain as it has become second nature to them. To breakdown the silos, we need to codify this knowledge and make it explicit. Organisations need appropriate systems in place to encourage sharing. With the exception of confidential or sensitive information, organisations should be information democracies, not information dictatorships. If there is no reason for information to be hidden or restricted, then it shouldn’t be.
This is a wide area and a thorny problem and solving it requires careful consideration. Three important aspects that should be considered are listed below:
1. Knowledge management
As organisations grow, it’s important that conscious effort is put into how knowledge is created, codified, stored and managed within the organisation. Think about the number of documents that are created every day in an organisation – how many of these might contain nuggets that are useful or re-usable in the future by other teams? Conversely, what are the chances of anyone ever being able to find those documents in future?
Creating a central repository can be useful, however many teams fall into the trap of creating a ‘knowledge dump’ rather than a knowledge repository. Thought should be put into how knowledge will be categorised and how it can subsequently be located and used. Further, these thoughts should be put into the cultural change that is necessary to support knowledge management. It’s necessary to create a shift away from hoarding towards sharing and giving.
2. Business process and procedural documentation
In addition to managing unstructured knowledge, it is beneficial to document and catalogue the core business processes and procedures that an organisation undertakes. This shows who does what, when and how. These useful artefacts show the end-to-end process, as well as the detailed tasks and procedures, helping to uncover tacit knowledge. They can be useful for training new employees, as well as useful for considering any future process improvement opportunities.
3. Data & Analytics
Additionally, thought should be put into how an organisation stores its data and how it can use that data, both in an operational sense (for example, serving a customer) as well as an analytical sense (for example, anticipating future customer trends). As I wrote in a previous blog, an examination of an organisation may find that useful data is locked away in private spreadsheets, which prevents the kind of organisation-wide data sharing that can yield useful results. Ensuring that there is a common analytic capability within the organisation that can be used to ‘drill into’ the data can be extremely beneficial. Adopting this capability early, when a midsize company is growing, can help embed the culture of data sharing before too many silos emerge.
In summary: As an organisation grows it is likely that roles will become more tightly defined and there is a risk that information and knowledge silos will emerge. Creating a knowledge management strategy, considering process, data and analytics can help to avoid this and will yield real benefits.
Have you come across challenges with information hoarding? Or do you have a related story or comment? I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to add a comment below.
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This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.