By Marian Deutschman

When we think of silos, we generally think of one grain separated from another in huge containers. Silos also segregate parts of an organization. From my own experience, there are two areas where we desperately need to overcome communication silos – academia and health care.

The silo effect occurs when we become isolated – the larger the organization, the more harmful the silos. I recently attended a mini-medical program where the doctor, as part of his presentation, said that as much as 70 percent of medical errors can be attributed to communication failures. In this age of multiple specialists, who looks at the whole person? Who connects the dots?

The primary relationship is between the doctor and the patient, but that patient is often perceived as a set of symptoms, followed by a specific diagnosis and treatment within the specialty area. From a financial perspective, a recent report from the Institute of Medicine found that the health care system wasted billions per year in uncoordinated care, repeated tests and inefficiently delivered services.

I spent many years in the academic environment of higher education where the primary relationship is between faculty members and the students in their individual classes, often to the exclusion of any coordination with peer faculty members. Academic freedom further isolates faculty members and the content of their classes from other faculty members even when their students are preparing for the next step in a sequence of courses.

Silos in many business organizations were reduced or eliminated decades ago with the recognition that they were a deterrent to effectiveness. Organizations in the public sector seem to take more time to recognize the benefits and the potential that come from elimination of silos. For example, the highly paid consultant who recently provided her expertise to the Buffalo Public Schools highlighted the need to reduce silos in this system.

Silos reduce potential for collaborative innovation. Higher education tends to function as independent departments. Doctors tend to function in their individual specialties. The primary allegiance is not to the organization as a whole, but to the specialty area where they get their rewards and recognition. We want professionals to have depth in their area of expertise, but silos are a deterrent to innovation that comes from cross-fertilization of ideas.

Organizations don’t change unless they are forced to do so by competition, regulation, technological advances or other compelling reasons. The Great Recession provides one of those motivators for fresh thinking and collaboration. We should not let protocol and politics stifle innovation.

Marian Deutschman, Ph.D., is a retired professor of communication. Her research focus has been in long-term care staffing and communication.