Silo Busting – 5 Tips for Tech Writers [Meeting Recap]

Summary: In the April 2017 meeting, speaker Paul Scott presented ideas about how technical writers can recognize and break up silos in their organizations. This recap captures important points about the kinds of silos you might find and how to address them. Read on for more…

About Paul Scott

When Paul Scott was a chemist, if something needed to be documented, his colleagues would say “Give it to Paul, he’ll do a good job!” In 1996, he made the switch to technical writing, with a side job tracking down “weird bits and pieces of information” for clients when Google or Wikipedia searches fail. At the April meeting, he shared how he goes beyond documentation in serving his clients by working around the business silos that can impede information sharing.

What is a silo?

Big or small, every business has silos that tend to remain insular, whether they are groups (or an individual), organizations or publishing (information sharing) vehicles. One silo’s unique culture, priorities, interests and mission is likely to be in conflict with another’s, but nobody on side is aware when there is no communication across the invisible boundaries. Development of processes, products and projects in an IT silo may proceed with blind ignorance of key impacts to another silo, for example, Accounts Receivable. In the case of a merger, “the goose with the golden egg” may associate relinquishing important data with job loss. The lack of communication across silos may not be recognized as a problem until it is. “Sometimes you have to have something break,” says Paul, before the negative aspects of compartmentalization is recognized.

We were invited to share personal experience with silos. “This is how the current white house is run!” exclaimed one dinner guest. Another shared stories about corporate silos at Lawrence Livermore Labs and resulting problems; a localization-related silo became evident when different Spanish translation teams came back with different wording for the same type of text.

How to monitor and infiltrate for the good of all

Paul emphatically makes the point that technical writers —  communications experts in a role that typically crosses functional boundaries — are perfectly situated to identify silos and try to head off their potential risks. (He also said that acting as change agents for diluting silo culture is usually an uphill battle. )  Here are five tips to guide you in monitoring your company for potentially troublesome silos:

  1. Identify the functional, organizational and publishing silos where you work
  2. Subscribe to a wide variety of meeting distribution lists and attend as many meetings as feasible to learn the culture, priorities and interests of each
  3. Become familiar with the most predominantly used company publishing channels (repositories, processes, sites, tools) and learn silo channel preferences
  4. Engage in cross-functional networking; get out and talk to your SMEs, product end users, project and line managers
  5. Cultivate relations ships with leadership team and upper management (anecdote: a tech writer who did this ultimately climbed her career ladder to her own LT position)

Now get out there and bust some silos! Or at least glean important lessons to share after recovering from silo-related incidents.

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