Breaking Through Organizational Silos in HR

Editor’s Note: Steve Browne is a good friend of Rehaul and has conducted local HR forums for several years. One of their most recent forums focused on organizational silos and how to break out of them. What follows is an edited version of the results of that discussion. You can follow Steve on Twitter.

At Steve’s latest forum, he asked attendees to tackle the intersection of organizational silos and HR and how they can be overcome. There were three critical questions that he asked forum members to answer.

What keeps us in silos at work?

  • Organizational structure favors this. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad, it just means that it’s how organizations have been designed to be efficient.  It is the “classical” model to have groups in functions that support their essential functions within the company.
  • Company cultures reinforce this. This is where organizational design turns ugly.  The culture looks for people to stay in their silo because that is what is expected.  If people tend to want to cross “silos”, they are seen more often in a negative light.
  • Perceptions of others. We like to see other people in their silos.  It is easier for us to “label” them and understand or “perceive” what they do.  HR is as guilty of this as anyone.  We want to label people as “Marketing” or “Finance” or “Sales” when we don’t want to be labeled ourselves.  We need to all remember that we’re in business.
  • Conformity is expected. Company norms help define a culture and companies shouldn’t apologize for that.  However, conformity becomes bad when the conformity expected is poor behavior, unethical practices, or discriminatory.  There is no call for that kind of conformity.
  • Job expectations. Our jobs can absolutely keep us in our silos.  Most people have more than full plates.  Not all of the work may be meaningful, but it does keep us tied to our departments and functions.
  • We like them. We even use words like “team” to mask the silo that it allows.  People like to be on teams, so we march right along.  Look at “cross-functional” teams with people from other areas.  They are really more effective, but they have a much longer normalization process.

What keeps HR in a silo as a profession?

  • The perception of HR. Many in HR feel that no one outside of HR can understand the pain and suffering HR goes through in order to exist.  When you throw in all the traditional monikers for HR: The police, the “No” people, the grim reapers, the party planners, the no fun department, etc, perception is a problem.  It is difficult to be in a profession where we’ve allowed these to be the descriptors of an entire industry.
  • We allow these perceptions because we’re sissies. HR has chosen too often to be the company doormat instead of the company leader.  The constant fear of litigation paralyzes HR and it shouldn’t.  Also, instead of confronting others with the truth regarding issues such as performance, engagement and development, we continue to pander to people including Senior Management.
  • Working with people IS tough. People are fascinating and offer incredible strength, insight, value and innovation every day but they can also be difficult to work with.  It just depends on how HR views people and how HR models behavior to others.  It’s past time to take on the naysayers in organizations and work from a position of strength.
  • We took the “H” out of “HR.” HR has thrived on being administratively strong in spite of people.  Look at the literature, the training material and the constant barrage of paper that continues to hit us.  The fact of compliance and regulations won’t ease up in the near future.  HR has to be in the “human” business if they want to be seen as valuable.
  • Not seen as a resource. If HR always acts beat down, why would people come to them?  This comment smacks of siloed life very well.  If we’re always distant and aloof, we can’t be a resource.

How can we realistically change this?

  • Solution: Out vs. In. We need to get away from our desks and dive into the sea of people we work with.  Yes, it is challenging, but in a very vivid way!  Remember, when you leave your desk, it doesn’t miss you.  HR needs to understand the pulse of the culture and you can only do that by being with the people in your company.
  • Solution: Integrate HR across all departments. The old model of HR is where people came to HR when there was either a serious Employee Relations problem or if an administrative need was at hand. An integrated organization has HR in all departments because all departments have people. Years ago SHRM encouraged HR to get a “seat at the table” and HR struggled to even understand how to do it.  This model shows that HR can be strategic if it’s integrated.  Being at the table never meant only getting “C-Suite” positions, attending endless meetings and making sure our metrics translated into business language.
  • Solution: Be in “business” and not “HR.” We can only be outside of our silo if we consciously live outside of it.  HR has to understand that the true measure of success is if the company they work for succeeds.  All the programs and initiatives of the world won’t matter if the company you work for doesn’t exist. Your job is to help your company do what it does to stay in business.

What do you think? Did these folks hit the mark?

10 thoughts on “Breaking Through Organizational Silos in HR

  1. Push for cross-functional teams, integrate HR throughout and be in business to be in business – those are the ones that hit home for us. We’ve never had an HR manager on our payroll because we’re just too small, but I have played one on TV (and man that joke’s getting stale). We’re a moderate-to-progressive firm that connects the silos and allows the strengths of each to blend and shine. However, allowing staff to straddle too many fences at once, regardless of how good they are, has it’s own set of drawbacks. We try to keep it all balanced by focusing staff skill strength on growing the business while creating career paths.

  2. Thanks for posting this Lance. It’s great information and includes some thought provoking points and challenges to HR professionals. Thanks also for highlighting Steve Browne’s HR Roundtable. As a frequent attendee, it’s a great resource for networking, connecting and sharing helpful information/discussions – just like this!

  3. No doubt, to get out of the silo, HR needs to be proactive. As already mentioned in the post, HR should try to become strategically integrated. HR must prepare personnel strategy that is aligned with the corporate strategy of the firm. HR needs to be decentralized. Rather than people from distant part of the organization coming to HR, HR needs to reach out to them. And lastly, HR devolution is absolutely critical. Until and unless HR succeeds in involving line managers and share responsibilities with them, it will always remain in a silo. Thanks Lance.

  4. Thanks for this Lance – I have long since insisted that I am part of the business (I attend sales meetings, etc) and that is now considered to be the norm. It is sad, however, how many people still tell me that I am not a ‘normal’ HR resource.

  5. I could not agree more. However, I did this without being an HR person and a long time ago. It’s not HR, it’s individual human beings. Humans have to break out of the hypnotic effect they have allowed others to put them in and stop acting like we don’t know what time it is.

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