A silo can be a beautiful thing. Majestic, even. Self-contained and essential in its purpose. But silos have earned a bad name in the construction industry.
Organization silos have multiplied geometrically as we move from projects costing in the tens of millions in the 1960s to the hugely complex projects costing billions that we see today. Owners, subcontractors, vendors, suppliers, architects, engineers, banks – all exist within their own silos. And the result?
Slow and onerous procurement processes, fragmented supply chains, disparate systems between project stakeholders, increased transactional waste, and significant inefficiency.
The commonly stated solution is to eradicate such silos. But wait . . .
Breaking down silos is hard. Structural engineers and architects, for example, are unlikely to change. They’re tribes, defined by their culture and expertise. Moreover, the industry needs and respects the many distinct areas of specialization necessary for developing and monitoring capital assets.
The truth is that any system of delivery that doesn’t respect silos is going to fail. We should accept them for what they are – but we need to work with and better leverage them.
The first problem with silos is that you often have no idea what’s going on inside them. Therefore, you need windows to peer within and appreciate the work, the effort, and the finesse that every discipline contributes. This helps avoid the adversarial position of thinking others will control the situation to their advantage.
So let’s say we have windows and we can see into those other worlds. The next step is building doors so we can actually visit. Wouldn’t it be smart for us to copy the model of the medical profession, where doctors rotate residencies to understand every specialization and appreciate everyone’s perspectives?
Mobility inside a silo varies tremendously. Young people want to join a company and become a project manager within a year, but how long does it take to rise through the ranks? You have to pay your dues. Consequently, you also need stairs inside each silo so that people have clear paths from the basement to the C-suite.
Still, accepting silos means accepting that hierarchies are here to stay, both within and across silos. People like to hang out with their peers. The C-suite hangs with the C-suite and middle management with middle management. So in addition to doors and stairs, you also need bridges so people can reach their counterparts and communicate across the silos at the level they need.
And let’s be honest. Sometimes, not everyone wants to be seen working with other silos. “What do you mean you’re hanging out with architects? You’re a contractor! They’ll brainwash and banish you.” For this reason, you also need tunnels connecting the silos to facilitate communication that is not always visible to others.
We believe projects can be executed in a more collaborative way by connecting and building a community of like-minded companies to deliver more cost-effective and predictable capital projects – across silos – to ensure no one gets hurt financially. It’s about acting more like neighbors than adversaries.
PrairieDog would like to thank Dr. Jorge Vanegas, Dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, for his time and insights on this article.