Break Down Departmental Silos


When one thinks of silos, the image is of a large cement structure; however, today’s silos are more of an image of grain bins connected by towers and catwalks between a cluster of bins.  Perhaps a better way to think of this recommendation is not that we need to break down the silos, but instead we should focus on improving the connections between the silos or grain bins, as often our path lengths are too long, information travels too slow or doesn’t get to relevant parties, resources go unshared, and more.  Often our internal vertical alignment to the mission of the college is fine while our horizontal alignment across silos is lacking.  Inefficiencies may be a result of the silo mentality but not usually the root cause.  The rationale is to identify the root causes and seek to network the silos.  

The data collected from the Innovation Lab’s All Faculty and All Staff Surveys showed evidence of existing silos or disconnected bins:  

  • 34% of faculty reported collaboration with people from other departments within their division in the range of yearly to never ever.
  • 53% of faculty reported collaboration with people in departments outside their division in the range of yearly to never ever.
  • 27% of staff reported collaboration with people in departments outside their division in the range of yearly to never ever.
  • 25% of faculty reported collaboration with people outside of our college in the range of yearly to never ever.
  • 6% of faculty sadly reported that they would rather not participate in an interdepartmental or interdivisional collaboration.
  • 0% of staff reported that they would rather not participate in an interdepartmental or interdivisional collaboration.  

Ideas from Other Institutions

Gettysburg College– reminds others not to wait to be asked, none of us can afford missed opportunities for distinction and impact.  Involve colleagues in yearly planning and ask to help with theirs.  

Ithaca College– over one year increased integrative studies majors from 4 to 13. Ithaca has set up programs to bring faculty members together, such as faculty learning communities and involving the deans.

Indiana University– uses technology to help break down the silos by uniting information into a central location and providing search access. In addition, they encourage informal activities to break down silos such as across-department lunches, common coffee times on campus, and assisting other units with interviews and hiring processes.

Suggestions for Northwestern

Shadowing colleagues helps you become more efficient at your own job.  When you understand the demands and to-do items of your co-workers, it helps you understand how to do your job and best support them at the same time.  When was the last time you sat in another faculty member’s class (just for fun) and what if you were rewarded for time spent in the class by a free lunch to enjoy together to debrief the experience…low time commitment with high benefits for multiple stakeholders.

Creating a model of critical themes: discipline knowledge (student’s major); leadership; service learning and civic engagement; global and cultural competencies; health and wellness; and research, creative, and scholarly activities.  Furthermore, we continue to create active convergence to openly communicate, commit to listening, and be willing to set aside egos and personal ownership of organizational turf in order to best help students reach each critical theme.  

Continue to seek ways to share so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing!  For example, perhaps the number of all-faculty meetings could be reduced, enabling more divisional meetings and cross-disciplinary meetings where departments are split between different sub meeting groups to share and update others on what is happening in their department.  

We’d also encourage the continuation of the Academic Affairs Update emails, as they have helped more employees feel that they know what is happening at the college and in other departments/divisions.

Strategic Plan

Goal 1.4 – Raise the reputation of Northwestern as a leader in Christian thought, scholarship, practice, and artistic expression.

Goal 4.1 – Embody our Vision for Diversity through culturally responsive pedagogy and curricular developments that consider race within the drama of God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ.

Additional Resources

College Silos Must Die For Students To Thrive– Forbes, 2017

The “Silo Effect” in Academia and Its Consequences– Higher Education Pedagogy & Policy, 2009

Breaking Down Silos in a School District: Findings from an Ed.L.D. Project in Montgomery County– 2013

Patrick Lencioni’s book: Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars

experiential learning, external learning, relationship, partnership, connections, knowledge, capital