Something called a “silo” kept cropping up in my field research with media reform broadcasters throughout 2012. At the National Conference of Media Reform in 2011 I attended a panel, “Getting Out of the Silo: Editing Video as a Community.” The organizer told me she was “looking to create an intersectional narrative of collaboration” with the panelists. “We are all living in our little silos,” said the general manager of a small television news network explaining how a possible partner rejected his overture for collaboration. Its “the silophication of the company,” said a vice president of a television news network of the process by which internet, television, and marketing divisions were not well-integrated while taking different approaches to the same product.
What is a Silo?
Silophication is most actively theorized by a person who straddles anthropology, global finance, and journalism: Dr. Gillian Tett, a Cambridge trained anthropologist and US managing editor of the Financial Times. Below I build theory through categorizing Tett’s use of the term silophication in her financial journalism critical of how regulator’s and banker’s silophication led to an absence of information sharing and the presence of a global financial crisis.
Tett sees the “modern age” as epitomized by tensions between integration and fragmentation. “[W]hile technology is integrating the world in some senses, it is simultaneously creating fragmentation too. Moreover, as innovation speeds up, it keeps creating complex new activities that are only understood by technical ‘experts’ in a silo.” (Tett 2009). Tett provides reasons why silos exist (complexity and professional specification) and implores regulators and bankers to silo-bust through hiring holistic thinking anthropology-like personnel to cross silos and share information.
Tett refers to two mutually reinforcing silos, an intellectual silo epitomized by monological and non-holistic thinking supported by the second structural silo of employment departmental balkanization. She admits to this duality of silos describing “structural silos (ie: departments that do not talk)” and “mental silos (financiers with tunnel vision)” (Tett 2009).
Tett states that financial regulators, the British Financial Services Authority (FSA), has “increasingly succumbed to a ‘silo’ mentality” (Tett 2008a). They “spend their time ticking boxes, within their allotted silos, rather than take a holistic view of risk” (Tett 2008a). Within these homogenized specialist silos, without “common sense and talk” (Tett 2008b) within or across specific fields, the chances of arriving at disasterous “solutions” increase exponentially. These structural silos are workers’ castes reinforced through “career silos” (Tett 2012a). Tett writes about “career silos” referring to how bankers or regulators remain in those castes, resulting in an absence of silo-transcending, information sharing, and empathy across silos (Tett 2012a).
Structural silos are results of the hierarchical organization of the firm, the spatial arrangement of offices within the firm, and the lack of collaboration within the firm. As Thomas Malaby, Andrew Ross, and other corporate ethnographers have recognized, companies can modify their office cultures and use social technologies to transcend structural silos. Business organization have been known to reject hierarchy in exchange for the semi-lateral flow of information across the firm that comes with heterarchy is analyzed by David Stark. This is often the case in new media firms. As Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley companies with their California ideologies have shown, it is possible to institutionalize through space, culture, and practice ways of addressing structural silos. This is de rigueur in new media firms but not so in the financial and federal sectors.
In 2010 emails revealed the extent of the deception and greed within the culture of Goldman Sachs investment bankers and Standard and Poor’s credit raters. Tett refers to these leaked emails as primary documents in her analysis of the mental silos behind the global financial crisis of 2008. She writes, “Their world was also in a strange, geeky silo, into which few non-bankers ever peered” (Tett 2010a). By “geeky silo,” Tett refers to the mental or intellectual silophication that defends proprietary knowledge against boundary breakers.
In another example, Tett expanded her notion of the silo to apply outside of finance and its regulation to describe America and American media as polarizing and tribal (Tett 2011). Tett says that the internet is not helping Americans bridge their tribal silos: “social media, far from bridging these silos, is spawning a new form of cyber-tribalism of its own” (Tett 2011). She continues, “Now that Americans feel free to create their own identity online, they increasingly assume that information should be ‘customised’; and as media companies rush to offer these bespoke services, it becomes easier to retreat into an intellectual silo” (Tett 2011).
The phenomenon of the intellectual silo has been identified by a range of scholars, activists, and anthropologists. Going by the name the “filter bubble” which fosters the “myth of digital democracy,” intellectual silos appear to be reinforced by personalization algorithms and by the innate safety of sameness in risk prone fields of cultural production.
Complexity and specialization, the result of growth in the knowledge management fields augmented by specific technological competencies, is the reason for the proliferation of task, department, intellectual, and field fragmentation today. Tett claims, “If you look around the world today, it is clear that almost every institution, from the army to the banks, is becoming increasingly complex. That, in turn, is creating a plethora of silos, where specialists beaver away, performing an activity that few outsiders understand. Yet the irony is that while these silos are springing up, we also live with systems that are increasingly interconnected; events on a trading desk or isolated battlefield can send ripples across the world” (Tett 2011b). As social complexity scales up, the silos proliferate and grow dangerously less communicative. In core intelligence industries of modernity, from the military to science, energy production, and finance, the silo curse impacts much of the world’s Western elites and by extension the rest of the world.
Tett explains the process: “This problem is not unique to finance. On the contrary, similar patterns can be found in numerous other areas of the modern world, ranging from science to medicine to energy and manufacturing. For as innovation speeds up in the 21st century, specialists are engaged in highly complex activities in numerous silos, that almost nobody outside that particular silo understands, or even knows about – even though the activity in that silos often has the ability to affect society as a whole. There is thus a bizarre paradox in the 21st century world: namely while the global system is becoming more interconnected in some senses, the level of mental and structural fragmentation remains very intense” (Tett 2010b: 129).
Craft specialization has long been our species’ reaction to increasing social complexity. For logical efficiency as well as the domination of worker’s biopower, hierarchically controlled professionalization has been one solution to the problem of knowledge containment. Employment casuality is one result of such efficiency logic on the human scale. But on the present global scale, and with the increasing dissociation of resources and publics through digital abstractions and its derivatives, unchallenged silos and the logics that support them, appear to be able to create global catastrophes.
Tett works for the Financial Times so she is a knowledge worker for financial elites willing to pay exorbitantly to access her pithy writing behind an expense paywall. She is also a social actor who doesn’t want to see her clients create another global financial crisis. For Tett this is the “silo curse” she wants to solve for her clients and because her client’s work impacts the wealth of millions of people, poor and rich (Tett 2009).
Tett provides some evidence that by 2009 certain sectors of finance and financial regulation were embarking on efforts to cure the “silo curse” impacting numerous sectors of modernity: “The problem that military and financial systems alike are grappling with, then, is how to combat tunnel vision; or, more accurately, how to persuade players to recognise how tempting – but also dangerous – it is to operate with a one-track mind” (Tett 2011b).
She applauds companies like Goldman Sachs who “try to ensure that different business silos have ways of watching what each other does” (Tell 2008b). Some regulators, for instance, are employing “macro-prudential surveillance (essentially, a posh word for active, holistic regulation). … [This stresses] the importance of joining up the dots” (Tett 2009). Meanwhile, “asset managers are trumpeting the importance of lateral thought and trying to understand what is happening in seemingly disconnected silos” (Tett 2009). To trump the silo curse, improve regulation, and reduce the prevalence of risking investment, Tett argues that bankers and regulators should “be forced to talk about their business with a wide pool of colleagues, including their immediate silo” (Tett 2008b).
Tett claims that “one of the essential investment challenges today [is to] understand the micro-details of modern silos, but [also] see how the macro-pieces interconnect, in a world that is both highly interconnected and tribal.” (Tett 2009). She looks back to her PhD training in anthropology for the penultimate solution. She proposes the development of “cultural translators”, who can explain what is happening in those silos to everyone else (Tett 2009). Tett is suggesting that anthropologist-like employees could help regulators and bankers translate insights from one department to another. For example, she champions “silo-busters” like Dr. Jim Yong Kim, also an anthropologist, as the president of the World Bank for showing the “power of breaking down the intellectual silos that mar much of the modern world” (Tett 2012b).
She concludes: “So, for my money, a better way to frame the debate is not to call for business leaders to be ethical, but to launch a fight against tunnel vision; call it, if you like, a focus on silo busting, both in terms of how companies organise themselves and how business people think” (Tett 2011b).
Tett identifies two iterations of silophication, one structural and another mental. Silos exist because of the complexities of today’s socio-technical world require professionalization and specialization. Silos need to be solved because they result in bad decisions that negatively impact millions of people. One way to solve the “silo curse” is to employ “cultural translators” who can inform specialized knowledge workers about the big picture of their work.
In my work with media reform broadcasters I identified silos: Inter-firm silos that are similar to structural silos in which departments fail to communicate; Inter-audience silos that are similar to intellectual silos in which television viewers balkanize into affinity groups; and intra-field silos, not addressed in Tett’s silo categorization, that refer to institutions within a single field of cultural production, a social movement for instance, who want to but fail to collaborate because of their silophication.
Financial journalists and media reform broadcasters are using the same opaque term, silophication, to describe similar processes. What is the significance of this shared emergent discourse? A methodological question remains. Tett is both a financial journalist and an anthropologist who is using a term used by the subjects of my research. Building theory requires a meta-language developed from records of an indigenous discourse. What to do when the ethnographic subjects and anthropological theorists share the same theoretical discourse?
2008a The danger of letting ‘group think’ spin out of control. Financial Times, March 28. http://www.ft.com/intl/cmts/s/0/1925d542-fc6a-11dc-9229-000077b07658.html#axzz1u23EtNca
2008b How talking can help cut the risk of a lemming fall, Financial Times May 16. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e040ef72-22df-11dd-93a9-000077b07658.html#axzz1u23EtNca
2009 Waking up to the ‘silo curse’ is far from the end of the problem. Financial Time. October 9. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/6d1de780-b469-11de-bec8-00144feab49a.html
2010a E-mail howlers bring murky credit business out of shadows, Financial Times. March 25. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CFwQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2Fa9da1aa4-508b-11df-bc86-00144feab49a.html&ei=l7-yT4–FYTRiALn-4ySBA&usg=AFQjCNEWttbIb-CaTyM61YL6Fn9HMKhLEA&sig2=Nh82w8uZk9l8z5-rc8y5WQ
2010b Silos and silences: Why so few people spotted the problems in complex credit and what that implies for the future. Banque de France • Financial Stability Review • No. 14 – Derivatives – Financial innovation and stability • July 2010 121. http://www.banque-france.fr/fileadmin/user_upload/banque_de_france/publications/Revue_de_la_stabilite_financiere/etude14_rsf_1007.pdf
2011 US Tribes and Tribulations, Financial Times, August 5, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/9a0ed5ae-be37-11e0-bee9-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1uyNOEaac
2011b The tunnel-vision thing, Financial Times, January 28. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/32637b44-28eb-11e0-aa18-00144feab49a.html
2011c ‘Preventing a repeat of the financial crisis isn’t about more business ethics, argues Gillian Tett; it’s about fewer silos’ Financial Management. April 19. http://www.fm-magazine.com/comment/our-guest/preventing-repeat-financial-crisis-isn%E2%80%99t-about-more-business-ethics-argues-gillian
2012a Hildebrand affair a blow for Europe’s public bodies, Financial Times, January 12. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/9c389df0-3d3b-11e1-8129-00144feabdc0.html
2012b Right time for a World Bank renaissance man, Financial Times, March 30, 2012. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/9eda0f8e-798c-11e1-8fad-00144feab49a.html