25) The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett
The premise of this book is really fascinating. Gillian Tett is a financial journalist, but also a trained anthropologist, and in her writings about the financial crash from 2008 onwards (notably Fool’s Gold), she became interested in how internal organisational cultures (and people’s behaviours) had led to some of those problems. In short, she got interested in applying an anthropological lens to businesses and organisations. In particular, as the title makes clear, she got interested in how people tend towards silos and compartmentalised behaviours that have bad outcomes (and how better collaboration can have the opposite effect).
So I was really looking forward to diving into this book, unearthing some gems, and emerging the other side with some learning on what makes organisations tick and how to build collaborative cultures that lead to success. Sadly, it was a real disappointment. Instead what you get is a series of fairly interesting chapters-as-magazine articles – one about Sony (siloed), one about Facebook (not siloed), one about a man who changed career (across silos) and so forth. Each in their own way are fairly interesting, some more enlightening than others, but there’s not the depth or overarching coherence that the book promises.
Neither is there much in the way of practical advice or application – if you asked anyone about breaking down silos before reading this book, they would probably have said ‘change the structure’, ‘cross-team projects’, ‘bring in new people with different perspectives’ and ‘silo-ing is a mindset too’, which is about as in-depth as the ideas get in the concluding chapter here. There are some minor insights about data and incentives, but I found it overall like skating across the surface of a great (and important) topic.
The book also suffers from being pre-Brexit and pre-Trump or, more pertinently, pre-echo chambers. That isn’t Tett’s fault, of course, but I felt like reading a chapter about Facebook’s great work (internally) about how it avoids silos was incomplete without something about their lack of great work (externally) about how it creates them in our lives, or at least the social media version of our lives. Indeed, a broader extrapolation to a divided and siloed world would have been hugely interesting (an additional chapter for an updated edition, for example).
Overall, I can’t help feel the glowing reviews were reviewing the initial and compelling idea, rather than its implementation in this book. And they raised expectations at least in this reader that weren’t met.
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