Knowledge Silos in the Workplace: What They Are and How to Overcome Them

Madeline Jacobson
7 mins
close up of grain silos representing knowledge silos in the workplace

There’s a dangerous monster lurking in the shadows of your organization: the knowledge silo. This villainous creature is costing you thousands or even millions of dollars each year, frustrating your workforce, hurting company culture, and weakening customer experiences. It’s creating redundant work, distracting teams from aligning on priorities, and destroying opportunities for collaboration. 

Fortunately, you have the power to defeat this behemoth for good. But, to eradicate your internal knowledge silos, you first need to understand what they are, why they develop, and the specific harm they’re causing your business.

We’re delving into everything you need to know about silos, and sharing helpful tried-and-true advice to help you avoid them.

Jump to a Section:

What Is a Knowledge Silo?

What Causes Knowledge Silos?

Why Knowledge Silos Are Harmful

Signs Your Organization Is Too Siloed

How to Break Down Knowledge Silos

Click to expand the infographic below:

What Is a Knowledge Silo?

A knowledge silo is a situation in which one individual or team has information that’s not shared or distributed with other individuals or teams. Instead of communicating and collaborating across the organization, each team or department is working in isolation.

There are situations in which silos can actually be a good thing. For example, when working on a project that only requires the input of one team, it may make sense to only communicate about that project within that team so everyone can work as efficiently as possible. However, there are many other instances where projects or activities require knowledge that exists across the organization, and when employees can’t access this knowledge, their quality of work and productivity suffer.

When left unchecked, silos can negatively impact operations and the customer experience. Types of silos include:

  • Department silos. These occur when each different department or line of business has their own systems or tools for sharing information and fail to effectively communicate this information outside of these systems.
  • Buyer’s journey silos. This problem occurs when departments aren’t in communication regarding what stage a customer or prospect is in their buyer journey. Sales may end up trying to sell a customer a product they already have, or giving them content that is irrelevant to their current needs. Either way, the customer becomes confused and frustrated.
  • Channel silos. These occur when there’s a disconnect between the teams and technologies supporting different customer channels, such as phone, chat, and social media. They can lead to brand inconsistencies and mixed messages for customers. 

Think of silos like a series of windowless rooms divided by soundproof, concrete walls. Each department is stationed within one of these rooms. They collect data and use it to drive decisions but cannot transmit those insights to other departments. So, when the time comes to solve more complex organizational problems or align on a common goal, chaos ensues. No one understands what other departments are responsible for, multiple individuals are unknowingly doing the same work, everyone relies on different data, and communications are unclear.

Unfortunately, many companies operate this way—and the issue only worsened when the pandemic forced people apart geographically. Suddenly, instead of silos affecting cross-departmental work, they began to impact collaboration between individuals on the same teams. And, given that virtual work is here to stay, businesses that don’t address these obstacles now may face even bigger and harder-to-solve challenges in the future.

If one team has little-to-no understanding of what another team or department does, if you store data somewhere another team cannot easily access, or if you’re not providing customers with a cohesive experience, you likely suffer from knowledge silos.

What Causes Knowledge Silos?

As it turns out, the majority of companies are pretty bad about sharing information across departments and teams. More than half (54%) of companies say their customer service operations are siloed, according to data shared by Forbes. And only one-fourth of senior executives report their teams are effectively sharing knowledge across the organization, according to data from McKinsey & Company.

But why are so many businesses falling short?

The truth is, knowledge silos typically develop silently as a result of inaction rather than deliberate isolation. Usually, they form when organizations fail to support the transfer of information across teams and departments. And it’s not due to a single-point-of-failure, either. In most cases, silos are due to several mistakes:

Lack of alignment around company goals and visions

When executives fail to properly disseminate messages about company goals and visions across the workforce, or they keep all decisions behind closed doors, it sets the tone for the entire organization. This trickles down to department-level leadership and keeps teams laser-focused on specific initiatives instead of understanding their part in the greater whole of the company.

Poor collaboration

When teams fail to work together, they also fail to share beneficial information, knowledge, and insights. If collaboration isn’t encouraged as part of the company culture, teams will become more independent and inevitably clash.

Inadequate onboarding of new hires

When new employees join a team, their onboarding experience lays the foundation for their performance in their new role. If information is poorly documented and difficult to access, they’ll rely only on the people around them—thus establishing the silo. As the team grows, so do the walls around the silo. Instead of all employees using the same well-documented and easily accessible knowledge base, each team will rely on their own disparate tools and methods.

Why Knowledge Silos Are Harmful

Knowledge silos can wreak havoc across your entire company. Here are a few reasons why they’re so dangerous:

Missed opportunities for cross-functional collaboration

Silos are self-perpetuating. They’re born of a lack of collaboration and then inhibit future collaboration. Over time, teams become more and more isolated.

Misalignment of teams

Knowledge silos also have a habit of forcing teams to create their own goals and objectives. And while all teams may be working toward the same organizational objectives, in theory, the lack of alignment means they’ll veer off in different directions, step on each other’s toes, and slow down any forward momentum.

For example, a marketing department at a B2B company might decide, based on their own team’s research, that their product messaging should primarily target HR professionals, while the sales department might independently determine that they should be targeting C-Suite executives only.

This misalignment of strategies causes a lack of trust between teams, leading to individuals carefully guarding information for fear that others outside their department might use it out of context. This, in turn, causes their co-workers to miss out on information that could help them do their jobs more efficiently and avoid redundant work that someone on another team may have already done.

Duplicate work

When teams aren’t aware of what other teams are doing, they’re likely to repeat some of the same efforts—thus creating costly inefficiencies.

Difficulty scaling

The growing pains of scaling often revolve around a lack of access to processes, procedures, and documents across each department. Employees are unable to effectively coordinate their projects across departments and maintain consistent brand messaging to the public. Not only does this information isolation negatively affect customers and prospects, but it also hurts your new hires. Silo culture causes a lag time between when a new employee is hired and when they are self-sufficient, productive, and profitable.

The process of tracking down information is slow

If information is siloed, that means it’s challenging to find and apply. As a result, employees will inevitably waste precious time and, in many cases, never find what they need. This not only frustrates employees but also trickles down to customer experiences.

They can cost you 

Knowledge silos can cost you time and money—two of your most valuable resources. A survey by Planview found teams lose up to 20 hours each month due to knowledge tools not being integrated or centralized. And a 200-agent contact center was losing a whopping $1.5 million in labor costs each year thanks to knowledge silos, according to data from Aberdeen.

As operational efficiency drops, so does overall employee engagement. And when employees aren’t engaged, their work suffers, leading to a poor experience for customers

Signs Your Organization Is Too Siloed

We’ve discussed some of the major issues knowledge silos can cause, but you can’t tackle these issues until your organization admits it has a silo problem. 

These are a few of the signs that your organization may be too siloed:

A negative customer experience 

A disjointed customer experience is one of the most obvious signs your company has become too siloed. For example, if customers complain because their experience with a product or service doesn’t live up to what a sales representative or marketing message promised them, or if they receive conflicting information from different customer service representatives, silos may be at the root of the problem.

Inconsistent branding

Inconsistent branding is another common issue among companies that are too siloed. Let’s say your regional marketing team plans and implements an email campaign to highlight new products or services but fails to consult the corporate marketing department. This may result in the branding and messaging in the email contradicting what’s on the website and other marketing materials. If branding across channels is inconsistent, departmental silos are a likely culprit. 

Slow onboarding for new hires

When a new person is hired, it’s key to train them as quickly and efficiently as possible. For example, take a company that sells luggage. If a company is too siloed, new hires may take months instead of weeks to learn the company’s processes because information and best practices are spread across multiple channels instead of living in one place. 

Low employee engagement

While you may not immediately think silos are behind employee disengagement, checked out employees are often a warning sign of a disconnect between teams. When departments within a company are isolated, the team mentality that promotes unity is missing. Without this sense of togetherness, employees often feel alienated and unappreciated. These negative feelings will compound and spread, creating a disenfranchised and sometimes even hostile work environment.

How to Break Down Knowledge Silos

Silos in the workplace affect everyone, regardless of role. Fortunately, there is a solution. Here are a few strategies for breaking them down and preventing new ones from developing:

Share activities

Actively encouraging collaboration is a common habit of high-performing organizations. Data from Deloitte shows companies that prioritize collaboration are twice as likely to be profitable and outgrow competitors, and five times as likely to experience an increase in employment.

Overcommunicate

If you’re not sure whether you’re communicating something clearly enough, you’re probably not. Breaking down silos requires a little brute force—constantly echoing the same messages until they become an essential part of the culture across every team.

Make knowledge documentation routine

A surefire way to ensure every team receives the same messages, leverages the same data and insights, and provides the same high-quality customer experience is to document your knowledge. Additionally, make sure it’s readily available to your entire workforce with a reliable knowledge management platform, and encourage everyone to participate in collecting, updating, and sharing information.

If a silo mentality has taken hold at your company, or if you’re worried your lack of cross-functional communication could lead to silos, work with leaders across teams and departments to develop a plan to improve your knowledge sharing. Your leaders will need to work together to encourage employees to adopt collaborative processes and technologies.

Becoming a truly collaborative organization takes time, but the effort improves productivity, happier employees, and better customer experiences.

Note: This post was originally published in 2018 under the title “Guide to Overcome Silos in the Workplace.” It was most recently expanded and updated in November 2021.

November 11, 2021

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