The Problem of Filters and Silos

Here is a quote from Why The West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris – explaining some of the issues with the inter-disciplinary approach he has taken in writing the book:

This courts all kinds of dangers (superficiality, disciplinary bias, and just general error). I will never have the same subtle grasp of Chinese culture as someone who has spent a lifetime reading medieval manuscripts, or be as up-to-date on human evolution as a geneticist (I am told that the journal Science updates its website on average every thirteen seconds; while typing this sentence I have probably fallen behind again). But on the otehr hand, those who stay within the boundaries of their own disciplines will never see the big picture.

And therein lies the problem. Science updates every thirteen seconds – it’s impossible to keep up with that much new knowledge. Our only hope is to filter the flow somehow.

One way that we do this is by working in silos – our silo becomes the filter. Everything from outside our area of specialty gets ignored.

This helps with the information overload problem, but it creates a new one. Big ideas come at the edge of specialisations, and, particularly, at the intersections. To come up with big ideas you need to be outside of the core (see this post for some ideas on how to do this).

This is another tension in innovation – the need to be both in the core and at the edge. As usual, the best answer is to change this from an either/or into a both/and.

Both/and solutions are hard to execute. You have to accommodate yourself to conflicting intellectual demands, and you have to be comfortable with a relatively high level of uncertainty. That’s what makes innovation both challenging and rewarding.

(photo from flickr/contemplative imaging under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Filters and Silos

  1. Tim that’s right it fits with my blog just below on framing. As you say “… our silo becomes the filter. Everything from outside our area of specialty gets ignored”.

    I once was advised by a particularly brash young academic lawyer that everything has a legal dimension, even opening a door. I remember muttering to myself that was not much help if your problem was that your door was falling off its hinges. Clearly there are different aspects or features of the whole “door opening problem” that can involve different specializations, from carpenters to (God help us) lawyers.

    But often the real difficulties come less from different specializations looking at different aspects or features of a multi-faceted problem than from them all trying to find answers to what should be essentially the same problem. Like you I am still working through the implications at firm level, but one of the most striking cases I have found of the silo problem here is analysis of the central problem of how tasks are coordinated within the firm, something that has been the subject of intense discussion in lots of different silos.

    One might reasonably expect that your home silo would lead to different emphases here, but in fact the results can be even more extreme than that. You can read all the way through Henry Mintzberg and learn how tasks are coordinated within the firm using techniques such as mutual adjustment, direct supervision, and various forms of standardization. And you can read all the way through Jenson and Meckling and read how tasks are coordinated within the firm with the help of various forms of internal prices.

    But it is the same problem! How can the same complex problem have two completely different set of answers with no apparent overlap?


    I’ll just leave it at this point and go off muttering about silos (while confessing to a sneaking preference for Mitzberg’s explanation given the invasive tendencies of economics and our silos which are really more like bunkers …)

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