Posted by: Gregory Linton | 01/14/2009

The “Silo Effect” in Academia and Its Consequences

Many professors suffer from what has been called “the silo effect.” This occurs when they become isolated in their own little part of their academic neighborhood and consequently experience minimal interaction with colleagues. Such isolation results from the pressures of class preparation, grading, advising, committee work, service to the institution, continuing education, writing and publishing, participation in conventions, speaking engagements, additional teaching duties for other institutions, community service, and church service. And of course, one must also have some personal time and family time.

The rat race of the academic year can cause a professor to get into a routine or a “zone” where every minute is scheduled and accounted for. Unfortunately, our overstuffed schedule may leave no margin for significant social and professional interactions with colleagues. When I started teaching at Johnson Bible College, one of my colleagues told me that we probably would not even see each other from September to May except in faculty meetings. Since we teach in different departments, his warning proved largely accurate.

To examine your own experience of the “silo effect,” reflect on these questions:

  • How many different colleagues do you interact with each week?
  • How many hours per week do you spend interacting with colleagues? How many hours do you spending working alone?
  • How satisfied are you with the amount of interaction that you have with colleagues?
  • How satisfied are you with the quality of interaction that you have with colleagues?
  • How does the “silo effect” affect you negatively?

It goes against human nature to be isolated from other people in this way. Even extreme introverts like myself need some interaction with others. We all learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in Psychology 101. He argued that, before we can fulfill our psychological needs, our lower-level needs must first be satisfied. These “deficiency needs” receive the focus of our attention and energy until they are met; then we can move on to the higher needs of self-actualization. These lower-levels needs are physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness, and esteem. When these needs are not met, the person feels anxious, tense, and depressed. The “silo effect” can be emotionally, socially, and spiritually draining.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Isolation from others can also be detrimental to one’s professional development. By interacting with colleagues in other fields or even within our own field, we can gain new knowledge and insights. We can also share ideas and experiences that will improve our teaching.

The “silo effect” is also detrimental to the well-being of an institution of higher education (IHE). People are not as effective or productive when they work alone as they are when they collaborate with others (Surowiecki, 2004). If an IHE aspires to be a learning organization, two of the five disciplines that it must encourage are “systems thinking” and “team learning.”

Unfortunately, most IHEs place little value on teamwork among faculty members. For example, in evaluations and tenure considerations, how much weight is placed on how well or how much a faculty member works with other faculty members? The proper sports analogy for academia is the PGA rather than the NFL. Each faculty member is rated on his or her own individual performance relative to those of others in the institution and outside the institution.

So how does the professor break through the silo and form networks of relationships across campus and across departments? One solution is to participate in a faculty learning community (FLC). FLCs provide an intentional strategy for breaking down the barriers between faculty members and encouraging interaction that will help them improve their effectiveness as educators while also meeting some of their personal needs. In my next posting, I will describe the origins and purpose of faculty learning communities.

Sources:

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds. New York: Doubleday.

Cox, M. D., & Richlin, L. (Eds.). (2004, Spring). Building faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97.

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Responses

  1. I really enjoyed your commentary. Another graduate student and I have been trying to figure out how to eliminate the silo effect among graduate students at Johns Hopkins to increase knowledge sharing between students and across schools. We learned that you have to first build a community around common needs then it is easier to engage them in other knowledge sharing activities. Do you think this could also be true for faculty?

    • Yes, common needs would be a good foundation on which to build a community. Common interests may also serve that purpose. One interest that cuts across disciplinary boundaries is a desire to be an effective teacher.

      • Do you know of any other thought leaders in the area of academic silo? or other bloggers?

        • I have run across the concept mainly in the literature on faculty learning communities. I am not familiar with anyone who regularly discusses this. FLCs attempt to overcome the isolation of faculty into different departments. The classic work on academic organization is Robert Birnbaum’s How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organization Organization and Leadership. In what he calls the “collegial” organization, silos are not so prevalent. Everyone knows everyone, and communication is easy and frequent. As academic institutions move more toward the “bureaucratic” stage, walls (and literally buildings) are often built between faculty and staff that make interaction and communication more difficult.

  2. […] knowledge in disconnected silos is not an effective […]

  3. […] that there are silos within our institutions, particularly in larger educational settings. While this is true from preschool through graduate school, silos become more pronounced as we progress along the preK–20 pipeline. The silos run both […]


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