Breaking Down Data Silos and What To Do Next

tokyo-crossroads-hero.pngBreaking Data Silos

The way that organizations have been designed over the past thirty years through a matrix structure has resulted in the creation of information silos. These silos prevent business leaders from realizing the value of big data, as insights and knowledge are kept to the confines of teams across the business. 

Teams, when faced with their individual goals, metrics, and challenges, have a tendency to focus on what’s in front of them rather than what’s around. We’ve been conditioned over time to focus on efficiency and execution - building “high performance teams” where alignment to the objective is all that matters.

While execution is still important, teams that focus too closely on their goals and rewards are more prone to create and reinforce silos.

Silos start with the current (traditional) organizational annual planning process. This bureaucratic and slow process usually involves the senior leader articulating his or her vision for the year and what follows is a slow cascade of tasks and jobs for the rest of the business - HR do this bit… Operations do that bit. X country manager focus here and Y country manager focus there. If we all do our part, we’ll get there in the end.”

This is exacerbated further with performance management systems that indirectly encourage individuals to deliver “their bit” in the plan.

A reliance on such technology intensifies the problem of data silos. Performance management software usually has a “fire and forget” button to click and inform someone about an interdependency. The sender is saying “that’s me - silo broken,” and the person receiving it on the other end lacks context, nuance, and thinking that surrounds it.

The good news is that if teams want to break silos of insight, there are three things that they can focus on immediately:

1. Meeting Culture

This is where silos are broken. We’ve been trained to think that meeting best practices involve a clear aim and and a well-constructed agenda. This might have been suitable for the stable manufacturing environments of 20 years ago, but today this kind of thinking only reinforces silos.

Related Reading: How to Set Up An Effective Data Team Meeting

The UK military has set up “alternative thinking” teams to come into meetings and planning sessions to challenge teams to look at alternative perspectives, breaking groupthink, bias, and heuristics in decision making. This way of thinking is being introduced to Young Officers in training to ensure the pipeline of talent entering the organization have the right skills to be effective when faced with the increasing complexity of challenges. I have spoken about meeting best practice in previous blogs, but to reiterate, daily meeting rituals such as outside-in thinking, devil’s advocacy, and "What If" analysis will give teams a simple handrail to think outside of their silos and challenge groupthink.

2. Construct Better Questions to Data

Construct your data question with what you’re trying to understand. This may be around a customer group, product mix, human capital need, or new partnership. This question informs what data you need to collect and gives guidance to your data scientists and analysts. They will be able to share insights and requests from other teams in different parts of the business. Industrialising a common language around data will help to break data silos.

On operations in Afghanistan, we referred to intelligence requirements - questions to data that when answered would increase the team’s understanding. For example, “How is the enemy receiving support from the local population?” This was then broken down further into other bits of information that we needed to answer that question.  For example, "Where are the safe houses?" We could then go to the data - family member locations, friend's locations, meeting locations, etc. What’s of critical importance is that the answer to this intelligence requirement would enable us to make much better decisions. Intelligence professionals could then share what data was working effectively across teams against what mattered to strategic value, breaking silos, and helping measure data effectiveness.

“Culture is the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged or discouraged by people and systems over time” -Ned Morse, Switch Points

Maintain an Enthusiasm to Share

Translate and share insights to those that need to know. Leaders that hold on to insights and knowledge for power or political reasons should be removed and replaced with those that are committed to harnessing the power of the group to wider benefit. 

Everything must contribute to the purpose of your organization. Hold those accountable who deliberately fail to do this.


  • Traditional top-down business structures create and reinforce data silos
  • Performance management technology creates a false sense of sharing information
  • Meetings are the most effective time to break data silos - consider new meeting rituals to share data
  • Formulate a strong data question and create a common language around data
  • Promote those who share data and remove those that hold it for power or political reasons
  • Do not rely on technology to break data silos. This is a cultural challenge and culture is found in everyday meetings - not on a dashboard.

Get new insights straight to your inbox