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How to succeed in complex environments: Is breaking down silos effective for K12?

Often created around specialty – by function or by location – silos help schools work in teams but come with risk

Breaking down silos is far from a new concept. More than 25 years ago, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, championed the idea of working across organizational boundaries.

Today, we live in a far different world. Our communications technologies have dramatically improved, and we have instant access to massive amounts of information. The promise of eliminating hierarchical, siloed and fragmented processes and culture seems certain.

However, technology has yet to live up to this promise. And should it? Silos develop organically and with reason. You need highly skilled specialists who develop strong working relationships and build healthy levels of trust around a shared mission.

Identifying the challenges of silos in K12

In the case of our schools, with the dynamics of modern student populations and the disruptive environment we deal with, silos naturally form and allow us to focus as a team on the shared knowledge of students. School building teams know their students and leverage that intimacy in education delivery.

Yet silos carry the risk of poor organizationwide communication, redundant work and stifled innovation. In any silo, staff begin to feel isolated. Without clear communication, misunderstandings and frustrations occur, which often translates to lower employee buy-in and lost opportunities to help students succeed.

The 2017 Consortium of School Networking IT Leadership Survey found the No. 1 ranked impediment for the last five years was “the existence of silos in the district, which make it difficult to work together on technology planning.”

So, what can be done?

Communication techniques that unify—but that still provide for the natural need that silos bring— include partnering with IT, holding forums to increase communication across hierarchical and functional boundaries, and ensuring cross-functional groups reflect diverse views and roles.

This “work-out process” focuses on creating sessions that physically bring together everyone working on different aspects of a single program. During these meetings, team leaders get real-time input from multiple stakeholders and then make immediate decisions.

Models of success

An example of a district using these work-out groups is Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama, where workgroups and advisory groups were formed to focus on student success.

The takeaways from Montgomery are powerful:

  • Be thoughtful and strategic about who’s involved in a crossfunctional effort. The goal is to form groups that reflect diverse views and roles.
  • Investigate past efforts to tackle systemic problems. Look at what went well and what didn’t go well, and how to implement those learnings moving forward.
  • Take time at the outset to clearly define the problems you are trying to solve. This avoids less than optimal outcomes due to unclear or inconsistent definitions of the problem at hand.
  • Communicate early, often and widely—and listen well. Differences in opinion may make the work more challenging but can strengthen the result.
  • Be sure to demonstrate incremental successes and create momentum for change by building in opportunities for short-term wins.

Technology can not only support but drive processes from common goal articulation, to ideation, to the delivery of learning, to measurement. Establishing these steps as the foundation for the work-out creates clarity, which mitigates the negative effects of silos, while maintaining the structure needed for specialization and intimate knowledge of students.