Silos and their Superpowers

If you want to smash the silos in your organization - and, by the way, you should - you first need to know your enemy. Silos have a superpower, which is increasing the value of resources under their management, and they can do that in at least four different ways. If that sounds like a fairly modest kind of a superpower, in this second post in the series on silos I will try to convince you otherwise.

We know what an organizational silo is. It’s a part of an organization, for instance a department or function or system, that is isolated from other parts, difficult to communicate with, and either unwilling or unable to provide access to, or share, its resources with others.

The “real” silos from which these organizational entities get their name do the exact same thing. They are designed specifically to isolate and protect a particular type of resource within their confines from the outside world until those resources are most needed and/or until the silo owner can extract the most value from them. That’s what they do.

While there are different kinds of ‘real’ silos, the most common by far, the most familiar to all of us, are the cylindrical towers on farms that are used to store grain. These functional constructs are are so common and so unremarkable that they tend to draw little attention. And yet we have been building grain silos, or granaries, for at least 11,500 years, longer than any other permanent or semi-permanent building type with the exception of homes and, possibly, places of religious or spiritual observance. They even predate other agricultural buildings. Granaries are part of the original built environment, playing a decisive role in the transition from hunter gatherer lifeways to more sedentary ones, including farming, industrial, and post-industrial societies.

This last point is so important that I’ll dedicate a future post to the earliest granaries discovered so far, including Dhra and Tel Tsaf in the Levant and Mehrgarh in the Indus Valley, and will discuss their influence on the shaping of civilization. But for now what is relevant is explaining how they work and thus why they are so important.

Granaries mark the first time in human history that we systematically gathered more than enough of a natural resource to satisfy our immediate needs and stored it for later use. To a nomadic hunter gatherer, which we all were until this very point in time, the idea of gathering more than enough would probably have seemed idiotic. Why waste energy gathering and carrying surplus? But to an increasingly sedentary community it became a valuable asset when managed and controlled in the right way. And this was precisely the capability that the granary gave them:

  • it extended the useful life of the grain by keeping it dry and enabling its owners to feed themselves even after the natural growing cycle had ended

  • It also increased the amount of grain available to them by protecting it from other animals that fed on it in its natural state, as well as from rodents, birds, insects and other parasites

  • It increased the demand from others for the grain by accumulating supplies of a resource that would otherwise require their own efforts to locate and gather

  • it even increased the ways in which grain could be used by giving them an option of trading the surplus with other communities in exchange for something else that they valued

  • As it happens, it also meant more beer!

From this moment on our relationship with the world, with nature, began to change. We began to think that we could improve on nature. The granary builders learned that by taking a useful thing out of its natural state and by controlling its environment and its release they could dramatically increase its value to them in more than one way.

This gradually became a new way of thinking about the world, a logic that declared that everything in it – not just grain - is available for our use, that everything is a potential resource; that the more control we have over a resource, the more value we can derive from it; and that the easiest and best way for us to wield that control over any given resource is to control its environment.

All this might sound rather abstract, but the very real impact of this discovery cannot be overstated. So great was the value to be gained from the control of grain supplies that the early granary owners began to want to record the movement of grain in and out of the granary. This drove the development of writing. The precursors to writing, tokens, appear to have been used for some 5,000 years exclusively for the tracking of resources, and writing itself was used only for accounting purposes for at least the first 200 years of its evolution. The value to be gained from stored resources may have driven the development of agriculture rather than the other way around (which is the generally accepted wisdom), and there is no doubt whatsoever that the first “civilizations”, the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian, owed their existence to the increasingly centralized control of grain in the hands of a few.

We have applied this knowledge to resources and silos of all types ever since then. We have made animals and plants more useful by controlling their movement and growth in fields and barns; we’ve made ideas and memories and knowledge more useful by capturing them in tablets, papyri and paper (and back to tablets!); we transform raw materials in factories, and enrich students in classrooms and schools. We make rivers more useful to us by damming them up and generating electricity from their controlled release. We increase the productivity of “knowledge workers” in the appropriately named cube farms; and so on. Even the remarkable 21st century achievement of physicist Lene Hau and her team in capturing light in a Bose Einstein Condensate is grounded in the same belief, the same logic of the silo, that if we can control the propagation of a resource we will be able to make it more useful to us.

In other words, our organizational silos are not so metaphorical after all. They are, in fact, “real” silos themselves, just not necessarily physical constructs. They do the same thing in order to achieve the same results. All silos, physical, organizational, conceptual, use the same method, the same processes and techniques, for managing their resources; they accumulate, isolate and immobilize resources and only release them when the most value can be extracted from them.

And this then is why silos are so successful and so persistent. Silo mentality is far from being a recent symptom of an increasingly complex business world. It is actually the underlying philosophy on which that world is founded! Silos are, literally, empire builders. Which, if you ask me, is a pretty impressive superpower.

In the next post I will discuss how silos impact the companies, communities and ecosystems of which they are, whether they like it or not, a part.


Footnote: Silos are not the same as general storage. Silos accumulate large volumes of a single resource type, like grain, and increase the value of that resource over time.  General storage repositories on the other hand accumulate low volumes of a range of different resource types. Garages and basements and attics and storage units are all examples of general storage. The resources found in general storage actually lose value over time, so much so that garage sales for instance recoup only pennies on the dollar, and often this type of stored resource never even gets reclaimed or reused by its owner. I’ll return to this theme in later posts on Home and on Hoarding vs Collecting.