Anthropology and Organisational Change: Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect

Panda? No, I’m a Dog!

Classification and world making are the core concerns of anthropology. In- groups and out- groups, borders and boundaries  are the frameworks of  social and political order.  Sorting Things Out, as Bowker and Star put it,  or the social practice of classification is essential for  understanding how all kinds of organisations function in the contemporary world. It  can also provide a platform from which to change them.

Gillian Tett, an anthropologist and Financial Times journalist, makes this claim forcefully in her recent book. The Silo Effect. Why Every Organisation Needs to Disrupt Itself to Survive explores what happens when institutions become too entrenched in their own worlds to be able to see what lies outside them. Closed, self referential networks where socially constructed truths prevail and established ways of doing things are never challenged amount to silos which stifle innovation, limit adaptiveness and lead to organisational failure.

The Silo Effect is a brilliant, thought provoking book which achieves two important things. It popularises anthropology for the real world and it shows how anthropology can offer applicable insights for changing it. The most significant changes, Tett asserts, come from how we see and organise the world. Confronting entrenched ways of seeing through silo busting and cultural translation offer significant benefits for companies, governments and individuals seeking to stay relevant in a world that is ever changing.

Anthropology,  with its insider-outsider perspective and its confronting of  social categorisations, offers  a  potential  instrument for doing this.  Companies can access the skills of anthropologists  by using them as consultants and by hiring graduates with some anthropological training.  But, Tett suggests,  anthropological  insights can also be accessed  more informally, without professionalization or disciplinary training.  If we perceive anthropology  not so much as a body of knowledge as a particular mindset which enables an insider-outsider perspective from which social truths no longer appear self evident,  anthropological ways of seeing can be adopted by  anyone with an interest in unpacking the ways in which their social universe is culturally constructed.

Embarking on an ethnographic journey isn’t essential for this, although Tett does emphasise the importance of situated analysis based on close engagement with people and places. Adopting six principles from anthropology provides a starting point for inculcating the kind of mindset which has the potential to challenge existing classification systems and the groupthink to which they give rise.

Deriving from a careful engagement with the work of Pierre Bourdieu and other leading anthropologists  the  principles identified by Tett  comprise the basis of sound anthropological practice whether we are anthropologists undertaking fieldwork or managers trying to gain perspective on our siloed organsiations.  Principle number one is experiencing life on the ground.  Number two is  listening and observing with an open mind and adopting a holistic perspective.  The third principle, after Bourdieu, is paying attention to social silences, that is to `what goes without saying because it comes without saying’.  The fourth  principle is  being attentive to the divergences between what people say and what they actually do. The fifth is  adopting a comparative approach. Finally, the sixth principle is  celebrating the idea that there are many ways in which to live in the world.

The Silo Effect is a wonderful endorsement for anthropology as a perspective for critical engagement and analytical thinking which has the potential to promote challenges to established ways of doing things. But my personal and professional anthropological mindset suggests that there is something important missing from the six principles if they are to genuinely provide a tool for change within, and beyond, organisations.

Politics and power are absent from the list of principles yet they are foundational to the formation of social order in all its forms, and to the consolidation and destabilisation of silos. Indeed, the case studies which make up the book consistently highlight the political interests which sustained  specific organisational relations- whether in the Chicago police, the Bank of England or Sony Corporation- despite concerted  silo busting initiatives undertaken by   committed and analytical  insiders.

Tett’s examples clearly demonstrate that while seeing beyond silos can be represented as a strategic epistemological leap demolishing them is far more complicated. Deliberate efforts on the part of corporations such as Facebook to prevent the consolidation of silos within their hugely profitable organizations are innovative certainly,  but they are undertaken in order to enable a particular kind of profit oriented thinking.

Taking the political is a seventh principle from anthropology and making it prior to the others would enable the situated analysis of organisations and the internal and external power relations through which they are structured. It would also render explicit the why and what questions which are prompting the analysis and the situated position of the potential change agent/anthropologist/ observer.

I wonder if the understatement of the political in the book’s conclusion is itself partly an effect of its situation within its particular silo. A business oriented book which is directed at enabling practical change has to offer the reader some personal as well as institutional possibilities. Like other popular texts in the current business and management genre it is directed as much to individuals seeking to transform themselves as to those tasked with transforming their organisations.


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

6 thoughts on “Anthropology and Organisational Change: Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect

  1. A great review. Thanks, Maia.

    One effect of that silo you mention is that when organizations are seen from the inside by individuals in a position to change what is going on, power and politics are always top of the mind issues. The anthropologist adds nothing of new value by raising questions to which the insider’s answer is, “No, duh.” From this perspective, the virtue of the six principles may be that they get people thinking of something else, opening minds overly concentrated on who are the key people and will they approve or not.

  2. I heard Gillian give an invited lecture about her book at the Santa Fe Institute a while back. She did a great job of showing why anthropology mattered in organizational practice and research. But the audience wanted more theory and dynamics around the silo concept. How do they form and how do they collapse? Are there degrees of “siloness?” Are there adaptive and maladaptive silos? In what kinds of environment? She may well answer all these questions in her book – I haven’t read it. It struck me as an interesting anthropological moment that I experienced many times in the drug field. We often come up with a concept that names a pattern that changes how you see things and generates a long list of the questions that wouldn’t have been possible without the concept. The audience has an aha moment, and starts asking those questions at the end of the talk as the clock ticks. in academic discourse – and SFI is an academic institution – this counts against the speaker, asking a question that the speaker didn’t ask based on the concept you didn’t have until the speaker spent the major part of the presentation assembling it for you. Colleagues who talk to non-– anthropological audiences know the problem. (I was the only anthropology colleague there – she asked.) Concept generation is a major accomplishment of an anthropological perspective. It might be interesting to have a conversation about how to present the results to different audiences. Or maybe there’s an entire library devoted to the issue that I don’t know about.

  3. great comment John. Perhaps what Gillian has usefully identified for us are principles of practice for work from a position which is on the inside of the silo which take one outside it..

  4. Thanks Mike. The point about concept generation and anthropology is really helpful. Perhaps that’s why anthropology is so good at sending ideas out to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences which then appropriate them and popularize them perhaps better than we do. How silos form and what sustains them is also important. Some of those questions are answered in the book. I wonder if the concept generation emerges from the intersection of different audiences, from the interstices of disciplinarity (between the silos) – which is also what Gillian’s book argues.

  5. Mike, what is particularly interesting in this case is that the concept of organizational silos is an old chestnut in management literature. According to Wikipedia, “The term functional silo syndrome was coined in 1988 by Phil S. Ensor who worked in organizational development and employee relations for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Eaton Corporation, and as a consultant. “Silo” and “stovepipe” are now used interchangeably and applied broadly. Phil Ensor’s use of the term “silo” reflects his rural Illinois origins and the many grain silos he would pass on return visits as he contemplated the challenges of the modern organizations with which he worked.” it is also worth noting that the people asking these questions were connected with the Santa Fe Institute, since these are the kinds of questions that those people routinely ask of any structure. Now here on Savage Minds we see a phenomenon familiar in cultural analysis. To group A X is a familiar problem. To group B Y is the right kind of question to ask. C is the anthropologist, who, being unfamiliar with both the problem and that sort of question, is trying to figure out what is going on. In this case, Gillian Tett is addressing a familiar management problem that people who write about organizations have been wrestling with for years, offering ideas rooted in anthropological approaches that seem fresh to business school trained audiences and other anthropologists unfamiliar with the problem, running up against a bunch of people whose preoccupation is mathematical/computational models that explain how complex structures are formed.

    Please note: These remarks are not a critique or put-down of any of the groups involved, just another perspective from someone who became an anthropologist, wound up pursuing a career in business, and has lately become fascinated by complexity and agent-based modeling and is taking online courses offered by the Santa Fe Institute.

Comments are closed.