The Trouble w/ Silos: Lessons from Charles Handy


CHARLOTTE, NC. March, 2010, by

We’re continuing to unpack the forces of culture in organizations.

So far, we’ve framed the many challenges, and looked to Edgar Schein to help us understand the interplay among org culture’s multiple, overlapping dimensions.

Now let’s tap the insights of Charles Handy (Understanding Organizations, 4th ed. 1993) who defined four cultural structures that are alive and well today.

I’ve summarized key implications here:

Lot’s to absorb, but Handy is telling an important story. First, let’s update the semantics from Handy’s 4 models, with some 21st century terms.

  • Power (command)
  • Role (control, silo, bureaucracy)
  • Task (network, matrix)
  • Person (individual contributor, talent pool)

To me, its clear: Handy’s structural forces are as deeply ingrained in modern organizations as ever. But what else can we learn from these structural tendencies?

The Trouble with Silos. Humans are a resilient sort, even (especially?) in an organizational context. Perhaps it’s because orgs evolve toward the stability of role-based (or really, standards-based) hierarchy, in a drive to perpetuate past success. We tend to repeat what we know how to do. That sets the stage for trouble, but there’s more to it. The other 3 models, while valuable, also face a limiting factor of organization size. They just don’t work well in large organizations. That has a sobering implication:

Handy’s Role-focused (silo) model is the only one that scales, making it the de facto “end state” culture as our social and commercial infrastructures expand. The result is calcification. We see this in academia, public education, and large-scale commercial enterprises in virtually every industry.

In short, with scale, our silos are hardening. We need to find a way to break this cycle.

Taking On Complexity. In coming posts, I’ll argue that 21st century complexity demands more dynamic organizational frameworks, embracing objectives like discovery and learning. It’s not the first time we’ve posed such ideas. But with the help of Schein, Handy and others, I hope to push toward new, actionable insights.

We’ll want to talk further about the synthesis of models. Most OD veterans (including Schein and Handy) would assert that blending of models is essential.

But too often the organizational practice is “one size fits all”.

Next Up. In my next post, we’ll look at adaptation and simple rules: how patterns emerge within orgs (aka human systems), and how we might use them to harness complexity. This will let us bring 21st century perspectives to Handy’s original analysis.

It’s a complex world. Our organizations and cultures need to be redesigned to contend with it.

Stay tuned.

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2 thoughts on “The Trouble w/ Silos: Lessons from Charles Handy

  1. Pingback: Innovation means different, not bigger. Charles Handy. | New Ideas. New Decisions. Creativity.

  2. Pingback: Cultural Patterns in Org Design: Can specific elements mark our Path to Success? | The DNA of Collaboration

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