A knowledge silo occurs when information does not flow between different groups or parts of an organization. One team, function, location, or business unit knows something useful, but others outside that group cannot access the knowledge—usually because it is stuck in team members’ heads, local file systems, or specialized IT applications.
Siloed knowledge can be any information, experience, or insight that is relevant but inaccessible outside the group that generated it. Here are a few examples:
- R&D teams around the world have separate databases for their lab findings, so they inadvertently repeat similar experiments.
- One factory designs a process improvement that speeds manufacturing time, but leadership does not share the innovation with other locations doing similar work.
- A supplier fails to deliver for a project team, but the team doesn’t document the issue in the ERP system, so another project team engages the same supplier.
- A team trying to troubleshoot a problem has no way to ask colleagues outside the team how they solved similar problems in the past.
Knowledge silos are pervasive, especially in complex organizations with lots of moving parts and a large volume of knowledge. And in most cases, groups don’t intentionally withhold valuable information and insights from one another. They simply don’t think about it, don’t know what they should share, or don’t have effective ways to curate knowledge and make it available. In addition, cybersecurity concerns make it appealing for teams to lock down all their files and systems to avoid potential leaks.
But knowledge silos do have a cost. When employees aren’t aware of or can’t access relevant information and expertise, they end up doing a lot of rework. According to APQC’s Fixing Productivity Problems research, the average knowledge worker spends 2.0 hours per week recreating existing information and work and 1.7 hours per week providing duplicate answers and updates. All this duplication not only wastes time, but also creates frustration and slows innovation and agility.
What to Do About Knowledge Silos
Knowledge silos aren’t easy to fix, but here are four recommendations to start tackling them.
1. Identify and document critical knowledge.
Some organizations think complete transparency and universal access are the key to overcoming knowledge silos. That sounds great in theory, but there is such a thing as too much sharing. If you connect people and systems in ways that bombard teams with unfiltered, marginally relevant knowledge, they will become overwhelmed and shut down.
The best interventions to bridge knowledge silos are intentional and targeted. Organizations should identify critical knowledge to capture and make broadly available. Encourage groups to distinguish between locally important knowledge and key insights likely to benefit others.
A good example comes from NASA’s lessons learned process. The organization provides clear guidance to help projects and programs sift through local learnings and identify lessons to add to the agency-wide database. The goal is to focus wide-ranging knowledge sharing on experiences and insights likely to affect future program outcomes across NASA centers.
2. Make access easy
While it’s important to avoid overwhelming people with too much knowledge, it’s equally crucial to streamline access to relevant resources. If employees must request permission or jump through administrative hoops to get to knowledge, they usually won’t. Some restrictions are in place for good reasons, like protecting intellectual property and the privacy of customers and employees. But many barriers—especially those resulting from turf wars and a “that’s how we’ve always done it” mindset—do more harm than good. Review your organization's permissions policies with an open mind and consider whether they are overly restrictive. It is usually better to default to open access, requiring a business reason to impose restrictions, instead of locking down unless someone makes a case for broader availability.
Even if employees technically have access to knowledge, they may struggle to find it. According to APQC’s research, the biggest challenges employees have finding relevant expertise are confusion about where it is stored and too many disconnected systems to search. Investing in enterprise search solutions or processes to elevate critical knowledge into streamlined, centralized systems can help address knowledge silos.
3. Provide avenues for employees to ask questions and request expertise.
When it comes to knowledge stored in people’s heads, breaking down silos involves facilitating conversations, mentoring, and coaching across different parts of the business.
One tool to accomplish this is communities of practice, which are cross-functional networks that help members share and learn from one another. Each community is held together by a common purpose, which usually focuses on sharing experiences and insights related to a topic or discipline. Communities can help identify and document critical knowledge, but they also provide a forum to refine ideas, ask and answer questions, and provide advice. Communities are a fantastic way to fill gaps in documented knowledge, since colleagues exchange know-how in response to specific queries and needs.
Expertise location approaches provide an additional path for employees to seek out knowledgeable colleagues. Expertise location usually involves the creation of online “people profiles” that list a person’s expertise, past experience, and topics of interest. Knowledge seekers can search the profiles by topic, keyword, or project type to find colleagues to reach out to. That way, even if knowledge is confined to a particular group, outsiders have an avenue to access the expertise they need.
4. Create incentives to share knowledge.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to removing knowledge silos is convincing groups to spend time and energy making their information and expertise available to others. Most groups do not deliberately hoard knowledge, but they are busy and focused on their own goals. With so many tasks and priorities, helping far-flung teams and locations just doesn’t make the cut. And in some cases, groups are penalized for taking time to support collective performance. If senior leaders care about reducing knowledge silos, they need to support meaningful rewards and recognition for knowledge sharing.
First, make sure that the performance measurement structure does not put groups in direct competition by—for example—ranking locations against one another or providing bonuses to the top-performing teams. Such metrics make it highly unlikely that high-performing groups will share the secrets of their success.
Then pinpoint the kind of knowledge sharing you want to promote and find ways to motivate those behaviors. Awards, acknowledgement from managers, and visible success stories can help indicate that the organization cares about cross-functional knowledge sharing and wants individuals and teams to prioritize it. However, the most effective inducements involve aligning professional development and career advancement opportunities with silo-busting activities. If employees equate identifying and sharing critical knowledge with getting ahead, they are much more likely to do so.