Why We Should Move Beyond Talking About Higher Ed Silos

The Silo Metaphor Oversimplifies to a Fault  

The use of the silo metaphor typically serves as a call for more collaboration. We often talk about silos as barriers to activating student centeredness or being more collectively mission directed. Those are noble and correct motivations. But talking about a lack of institutional alignment by faulting silos oversimplifies the issues that are preventing alignment. 

Oversimplification also points to one of the dangers of metaphors. Metaphors allow us to make convenient parallels between one idea and a second that can shed light on a murky topic so we can better understand the first. However, metaphors are not exact likenesses. We have to overlook certain elements of the metaphoricalized idea at the same time that we overlook others. We can easily forget about those overlooked elements and give the metaphor an authority to describe a situation that lasts longer than the metaphor’s usefulness. 

Missing the Farm for the Silos 

Such is the case with silos. We may see them as rote structures (static places to store corn), but they are highly functional (places that allow corn to be moved into trucks or train cars). If you have a silo full of corn and you can’t get anything out of it, then by definition it’s not actually a silo. To extend the metaphor, if it’s difficult to get corn from the grain bin over to the truck to take it to the next place it goes, then that’s not a problem with the silo itself. Being unable to get corn out of a silo is a function of a poorly functioning farm—all the systematic pieces are not in place to make use of the silo’s capacities. 

If you think about what it is like to be a student on a campus navigating through this highly complex organization, without things like silos—without things like divisions—how do students know where to pay their bills, get ID cards to swipe into the residence hall or find a therapist? If there were not discrete places for students to go to find the help they need, you would have a mess on your hands. 

On the governance side, there’s a completely different argument to support highly effective, discrete organizational structures. It’s understandable why people say “I want to bust all the silos” at a metaphorical level, but it really isn’t possible in a higher ed governance model. Divisions and offices must have a set of clear duties they discharge that feed into shared institutional priorities. If real silos are more functional than we give them credit for, then why do we continue to talk about siloism? How else can we talk about institutional misalignment so we can overcome it?

Focus Less on Silos and More on Organizational Design 

We’re not specific enough about what the problems of siloism are. What do we mean specifically when we say that the institution needs to be better designed to meet student or employee needs? That’s a little bit of semantic hair splitting. Talking about silos is an entrée into another discussion, one that is really about organizational design. We’ve got to be looking at the farm. Any farm’s going to have silos, and it’s going to have pastures and troughs. If we can’t get to a particular trough in a back pasture easily enough, that inaccessibility is not the fault of the trough. It’s a problem with the functional design of the farm. We didn’t plan well enough for the work we need to do every day.

It’s important to note that higher ed gets a lot of things right, too. It’s popular to be incendiary and critical. Consider the scope of the marketing function at your institution. “If marketing means everything related to messaging, then why can’t it control everything?” is one of the popular questions people ask. It can’t control everything because of the governance model. It’s a non-starter to make marketing control all messaging to all audiences at all times. But the value we can perceive in that question is the recognition that marketing effectiveness should be a value held by everyone on campus in the same way that the mission should be held and activated by everyone on campus. There’s a place for everyone in the mission. But to demand that one function should be accountable for the entire institution is unfounded and misguided.

This is where the base issue with siloism comes out—in people asking, “Is my function an institutional responsibility and is that responsibility paramount to this other one?” People want to know where in a list of institutional priorities they become accountable and how to tell when their activities take institutional precedence. In reality, no responsibility is more important than any other, but this question points to times when we are not capturing opportunities within our organizational design. 

Think about student success. People like to call it “hole plugging” after asking where there are gaps in student experience. We prefer that people talk about those gaps in terms of opportunities. There is already a function designed to “plug” almost all those “gaps.” We just have to capture the opportunity.

Siloism Metaphors Further the Misconception That We All Have Separate Institutional Priorities 

Why do we believe that we have separate institutional priorities? What institutional marketer should not be motivated by attracting a best fit student that is aligned with the shape and goals of a flagship institution? Attracting the right students is not just an embedded enrollment function. 

We need to consider how we’re building pathways between functions. How those two functions should communicate needs to be really well defined. Let’s take the relationship between enrollment and marketing as an example, because it’s one every institution has to navigate. 

We often hear enrollment or marketing folks say, “I’m responsible for enrollment.” First of all, it’s not true—no enrollment or marketing staff is actually single-handedly responsible for enrollment. However, if we look at this statement from the perspective of skillsets, we can expand the conversation to discuss how enrollment should be approaching institutional marketing to ask, “How can you help us reach this institutional priority?” Accomplishing that is going to require a relationship or a bridge, if you will, or a two-way path, a conduit or a permeable membrane. It means that enrollment staff don’t have to become marketing experts and vice versa. When we identify specific responsibilities and talents, attributes and capabilities, those combine in an additive way. And that will help motivate institutional priorities.

Identify How Strategic Priorities Affect Each Individual Function 

The high-performing institution understands how strategic priorities affect each individual function. If we were going to diversify the student body to match the demographics of the state, for instance, all institutional functions have roles to play. It’s not just the responsibility of student success, or diversity and inclusion, or enrollment, or recruitment, or institutional marketing. To understand that we have to get our eyes off of siloism and back onto organizational design and execution of institutional mission and priorities. 

Here are some example questions to ask at your institution about whether your functions relate in healthy ways that support your institutional priorities and mission:

    • What does a positive missional relationship between admissions and recruitment and student success look like? 
    • How does it function? 
    • What are the links that allow that to happen? 
    • What functions should be in student success? 
    • Which should be in recruitment? 
    • Which should be in admissions?
    • Which should be in marketing?
    • How can we talk about where our opportunity gaps are and how to fill them?
    • How do we know we’ve been successful at activating our priorities?

We know these can be thorny discussions because they involve digging into sensitivities around how responsibilities are divided and how people find purpose in their jobs. That takes time and trust. If you could use another perspective on how to build bridges or pathways between opportunities at your institution, please let us know how we can contribute our expertise in organizational design and executive counsel to those conversations.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.