Recently I was speaking with a client who was thinking about how the program that they manage (as a part in a large organisation) will be more responsive in the new world of the NDIS. This is not a situation where their service has to adjust from “block funding” to a fee for service model, but thinking more about what they might offer as a unique service to those who might wish to use their NDIS resources to purchase. If you work in the disability sector, then in 2017 there’s nothing remarkable about this type of process. We’ve all been engaged in it for quite a while as this important reform builds momentum.
During the conversation the manager mentioned that another program, in another division of the organisation, had just released their NDIS response strategy. She lamented that the other division are planning to offer an identical service to the one which she already offers. My client’s division offers the service to people without drawing on their NDIS funding, while the other division will draw from individuals’ NDIS funding.
One program was providing at a cost to the NDIS package what another program was already able to offer to the same person for “free.”
The alarm bells in my ears were ringing at this point. Was it ethical for the one organisation to offer the same service to the same client cohort, the first being provided without charge and the second charging a significant fee? Therein lies another blog post, as there are precedents in the non-profit sector where organisations charge for services and provide them at no costs (think about home based aged care and the user pays system when packages have previously been unavailable), however this focus of this Saturday morning reflection is about organisational silos.
How can one part of the organisation know nothing about what the other parts are doing? Or maybe the better question is, what are the consequences for stakeholders, staff and organisations when such a phenomenon arises? Is it acceptable for our programs to operate in isolation from each other? And the biggest question of all, what can be done to break down silos in big organisations?
As with so many other issues in human service organisations the silo-breaking strategies will distill into two key elements: healthy relationships and leadership. If you expect to read “communication” as one of my recommended strategies at this point then I’m not going to meet your expectation. “Communication” is often given as a solution without ever defining what it means or how it will be implemented. I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me what an “open line of communication” is other than a throw away term which sounds useful but changes nothing.
I highlight relationships and leadership specifically because they can be more easily defined in actions. Where there are healthy and vibrant relationships between staff in an organisation then there are platforms upon which ideas will be exchanged, creativity will be sparked and a desire to work collaboratively will become a natural consequence. When people know each other then they are able to choose to work together, and understand how they can help each other. Our program managers are the people who need to understand each other’s programs and aspirations better than such knowledge is needed to cross organisational hierarchy levels.
Leadership is essential because it is leaders who can create the opportunities for relationships and cross fertilisation within organisations. If leaders value bringing program managers together, and value relationships, then organisational meetings will take various forms. Morning tea becomes an important part of the agenda. Cross program projects (imagined and driven by program managers not executive management) are resourced and encouraged. Staff are given the opportunity to engaged in secondments, or work across programs. Leaders both expect and encourage communication between program managers to occur outside of line management and divisional boundaries.
The natural consequences of such activity is that when two services begin to work on the same initiative it doesn’t take long for someone to identify which other programs in the organisation are stakeholders in the activity. Then follows a desire to seek out the skills, knowledge and support of colleagues who we know well through established relationships.
There are many authors who have written about breaking down silos. If you’re wanting to reflect further then you can quickly access some great material using your favourite search engine and they key terms.
I quite enjoyed the forthright comments of Kaplan in the Havard Business Review (2011) “Xenophobia runs rampant within public, private, non-profit and for-profit silos. Each silo has created its own world completely foreign to inhabitants from other sectors.” Xenophobia is a pretty powerful word to use, but well chosen. Hopefully the response from readers is not, “Please explain?”
A blog at Real Colors is provides a rather simple set of dot points which can be massaged into a checklist to help readers begin the silo-smashing process.