It’s time to ditch the work silos, for real.

Projects, Viewpoints

Photo: With Eli van der Giessen at Social Good Summit 2015 in New York. Eli and his team introduced me to NetSquared over dinner. Later that week, I met with Eli to brainstorm what would become TechSoup’s ambassador program.

Post: A fleshed out version of what I shared on LinkedIn about using the TechSoup forum to optimize workflows and increase the bottom line.


It’s time to ditch the work silos, are you with me? Job descriptions aren’t any good if they’re closed. Ditching silos not only streamlines workflows, but it also gives employees more ways to invest in themselves, and each other. Diversifying your team can move your organization toward a more service-oriented approach to engagement. The trick? Understand your people and try out new workflows together. Simple, right? Well, maybe.

People crave deeper meaning in what they do. Innovation influencer Daniel Pink calls it “Motivation 3.0,” where autonomy, mastery, and purpose determine and define one’s journey and self-worth. It’s a philosophy that brings employees and managers closer to their work and each other.

With more transparency and proper motivation, employee engagement and productivity improve, clients and donors notice, and your brand gets a boost. Here’s how it works:

First, the employee model evolves from “having skills” to “solving problems.” For a marketing team, this could mean working with Accounts and Sales to identify the best case stories and case studies. This happened when Contently restructured across the marketing funnel and mapped roles to audience segments.

By following the client journey, each team member becomes an expert in one part of the process, allowing them to enhance every part of it, rather than focusing on one job. In other words, doing away with functional silos.

Value Add #1: Diversifying closes skill gaps, encourages upward mobility, and makes employees and organizations more resilient, adding value to the talent market long term.

Second, employees take creative ownership of their work. By focusing on experiences, employees not only adapt in a practical setting, but they also track new challenges (and solutions) as they arise. Human Resources can work with Marketing to transform an otherwise dull talent search into a storytelling event or digital campaign. Or it can source the best talent for the data team by using data analysis to connect the department’s structure and performance with its hiring history.

Value Add #2: By engaging deeply with internal clients, employees themselves help to build a culture of accountability at the organization.

Third, collaboration drives the process. Diversifying responsibilities within “frames of experience” along a linear timeline creates a storyboard dynamic, where team members visually position their work (best practices, strategies and takeaways) along the funnel. You can encourage employees to log their work in a journal or storyboard, or host a creative writing workshop at your annual retreat. Or, offer an intranet for engagement and reward your active employees.

Value Add #3: This type of transparency not only grooms employees for collaboration, but it also develops their visual literacy and storytelling prowess.

You can start by using existing technology and workflows to fill gaps, optimize performance and synergy, and increase productivity. Marketing, engagement, and development teams can pilot cross-departmental programs and later scale up for external partners. But you’ll have to incentivize cross-functionality across your team or organization first. Here’s how:

Start with beta testing internal workflows with HR (onboarding, evaluations, talent acquisitions, and editorial can all benefit from this approach). Identify one team of 10 or two teams of 4-5 (you’ll need buy-in from managers and department heads). Design your experimental workflows for the high performers (experimental group). See what works, what doesn’t, then integrate small changes, working up to larger ones over time. Work with high performers to identify and share actionable insights with the others (control group).

When I co-developed a business case analysis for integrating the TechSoup forum with a new platform, the spirit of collaboration was infused into every item on our “must have” list.

As the forum community manager, I led a team of experts and worked with TechSoup’s engagement team to position the forum as a resource for the global nonprofit sector, as well as a content partner for brands like Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco and Box.

As the most trusted technology resource for nonprofits, the TechSoup forum attracts professionals with a wide range of experience, all looking to learn and share about tech. In this environment, working toward shared objectives with strangers is common.

The platform we imagined would take a service-oriented approach to relationships. I suggested that moderators each own a part of the member experience, from registration to onboarding to contributing — something we could later adapt for partners.

Considering our timeline and overall bandwidth, we had to start small. First, to better equip client services, we encouraged personnel to integrate the forum into their daily workflows. This required working outside of their job descriptions — in this case using the forum to answer questions, share product updates, and follow up with prospects.

What might normally be a simple experiment still required buy-in from senior management, so it was important to factor in the time needed to gain trust and facilitate conversations behind the scenes.

Restructuring in this way helped to streamline and personalize relationships, which allowed us to take the forum from “inactive” to “revenue partner” in a matter of months. A big win for everyone inside and outside of the organization.

Ok, not all teams can do what we did. Restructuring often requires additional people and more money for salaries and training, not to mention the time and energy to justify new procedures “because it’s always been done this way.” If your organization is resource-poor or risk-averse, save yourself a headache and consult a case study or ask an expert for help.

Bottom line: If you want to work smarter (and happier) inside or outside of your team, consider opening up your job descriptions. You’ll be ready to collaborate when opportunity knocks.

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I'm at the nexus of science, tech, and philanthropy, helping communities of practice and teams of all sizes to collaborate better.