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Silos Are For Grain

January 14, 2010

Anyone who ever drove through the rural countryside of our great nation has seen grain silos typically located next to the barn where they hold grain, either used to feed the farm animals, or to be stored until taken to market.  They serve that purpose perfectly, but they don’t work well at all in the rest of the world, particularly when it comes to communicating. 

As a farm boy, I never heard the word “silos” being used outside a farm context until recently. Apparently the Centers for Disease Control reorganized its massive communications department because it was believed their staff was working in “silos”….vertically, instead of horizontally.  In this new era of social media, it is unbelievable that any organization would want to limit input from outside sources – especially sources that can prevent disasters, and two examples come to mind.

The terrorist who recently tried to blow up an airplane carrying 300 passengers on a trip from Copenhagen to Detroit was, the experts tell us, due to the federal government’s failure to “connect the dots.”  The news media told us that we have 16 different federal agencies that could or should have known and shared this information to prevent the terrorist from getting on the plane.  However, they failed to communicate with each other.  As a result, we came very close to another disaster that could have been prevented, simply because people did not connect.

A more historic example is the Administration of Richard M. Nixon.  In a fascinating book, The Palace Guard, written by ex-newsman Dan Rather, he tells how the Haldeman/Ehrlichman guard dogs failed to let anyone in to see the President.  In fact, even Cabinet officers were told to put their request or questions for the President in writing and they would see that it got to the President.  As a result, Mr. Nixon was totally insulated from the American people who elected him and his own staff who were hired to give him advice and counsel.  We all know how this turned out…a total disaster not only for the President, but the American people as well.

Increasingly I see this in my work with federal agencies and even some non-profits, wherein a senior official will tell subordinate staff they do not want external advisors or consultants to communicate directly with them.  They want everything to be filtered through subordinates, which is usually an obstruction and does not lead to clear communications.  Still another example is a government agency official who refuses to let external consultants contact or get information from any other government agency without going through them.  It is another example of filtering and obstructing the free flow of information, which at worst can lead to disasters, and at best can lead to poor decision-making.

In a great new book called The Connectors, the author talks about the importance of networking, connecting with others, and the benefits of working horizontally, rather than vertically.  She tells about one person on LinkedIn who has thousands of links with colleagues.  In his bestseller, The World is Flat, economics reporter, Thomas Friedman, discusses the importance of being connected with other citizens of the world and how transportation, phone communication and the Internet are linking humanity together for common benefit.

A recent and tragic incident – the earthquake in Haiti in mid-January – shows the importance of being able to connect with modern technology.  Anyone with a cell phone can send donations to help  Haitians.  The Red Cross has a system where a cell phone user can text “Haiti” to the number 90999.  The text message will result in a $10 donation to the Red Cross that appears on cell phone statements.  According to news reports in only 24 hours, these text messages raised $3 million in aid.

It is sad to know that the federal government is now building more bureaucracy, invading our personal space and causing anyone who uses the airlines untold inconvenience simply because government agencies failed to “connect the dots.”  Silos do have their place…sitting next to a barn in a bucolic setting.  They do not serve us well in any other place.

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