Functional silos are passé. Here’s what to do about it.

This is one in a series of posts that explore a conceptual framework for understanding how collaborative design can work for smart city initiatives. Last time, I brought up the importance of infrastructure organizations in global philanthropy, and how smart city initiatives can benefit from a similar networking model. This week, I noticed a development in project management that has implications for collaboration across the board.

All this time “getting specialized” and it turns out we’re cheating ourselves of expertise by narrowing our vision to a single function. Opening up functional silos and focusing on the customer journey may actually help to improve engagement across the board. If Jordan Teicher at Contently is right, then traditional marketing team structure is in for a big change — one that involves restructuring across the marketing funnel and mapping roles to industries or audience segments.

Opening up job descriptions has implications for collaboration inside and outside the organization. Here’s a top level look:

Organizations increase productivity and retention by giving employees more autonomy with improved workflows designed for specificity and a service-oriented approach to engagement. Standardization radiates outward to clients and donors, strengthening connection and brand.

Workflows are designed for a service-oriented approach to engagement.

Now, consider the benefits:

First, the employee model evolves from “having skills” to “solving problems.” Each member of the team becomes an expert in one stage of the funnel (top, middle or bottom) allowing them to “focus on improving every part of it, rather than just a specific job.” Diversification helps to address skill gaps and brings value to the talent market long term. This helps to create a culture of upward mobility for the organization.

Second, employees take creative ownership of their work. By focusing on experiences, they not only adapt in a practical setting, but also control the outcome of the experiences they create. It’s also worth considering how many professionals crave a deeper meaning to what they do. Daniel Pink calls it Motivation 3.0, where autonomy, mastery and purpose define the employee journey. Fostering deeper connections with clients helps to build a culture of accountability at the organization.

Third, collaboration drives the process. Diversifying skills and responsibilities within experience “frames” along a linear timeline creates a storyboard dynamic, where team members organize their work visually to correspond to their position along the funnel (best practices, strategies and takeaways). This relates their work to the team as a whole. Transparency positions employees as collaborators.

So, where to begin? Organizations can beta test internally with redesigned employee engagement models for HR staff. Onboarding, evaluation cycles and talent outsourcing are all areas that can benefit from this approach. Marketing and engagement or development teams can pilot cross-departmental programs before modifying for external partners.

Teams can also integrate small changes and work up to larger ones. A few years ago, when I co-developed a business case analysis for integrating the TechSoup forums with a new technology platform, the spirit of collaboration was infused into everything on our “must have” list. As the most trusted tech resource for nonprofits, the TechSoup forums attract a wide spectrum of nonprofit professionals, from the most specialized to the least experienced — all looking for a place to learn and share about tech.

Forum moderators each own a part of the member experience.

As TechSoup’s forum community manager, I led a team of experts and worked with the engagement team to position the forums as a resource for the global nonprofit community, as well as a content partner for Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, Box and other partners. The platform we imagined would certainly benefit from a service-oriented approach to managing relationships. Our moderators could each own a part of the member experience, from registration to onboarding to contributing — something we could later adapt for our partners.

Considering the overall project timeline, we started small. First, to better connect client services with their clients, we encouraged personnel to integrate the forums into their daily workflow. This required working outside of their job descriptions, in this case using the forum to answer questions, share product updates and follow up on prospective clients. Here, restructuring (although a small part of what Teicher proposes) helped to personalize and streamline client relationships. As a result, the forums were positioned as a revenue parter for the organization — a big win for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, not everyone can experiment like we did, at least not yet. For resource-poor organizations, a shift like this could be akin to moving a mountain. Restructuring sometimes requires more people and money for salaries and training, not to mention the time and political energy it takes to adopt new procedures “because it’s always been done this way.” Still, organizations of all sizes should consider how opening up silos can improve relationships and position their teams for smarter collaboration when opportunity knocks.


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