Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

26 January 2017

Silo APIs?

Clark @ 8:06 AM

I was in a conversation with my colleague Charles Jennings about organizational innovation, and one of the topics that arose was that of barriers to successful organizational function. In particular, we were talking about how the division of responsibility between organizational development (OD), leadership development, and learning & development is a problem. And I think the problem is bigger. Separating out functions into silos makes sense in a deterministic world, but that doesn’t characterize our current environment.

Now, separation of functions can be useful. Certainly in software engineering, having application program interfaces (APIs) have led to the ability to connect powerful capabilities.  A program can call a function and get data returned via an API, and the software doesn’t have to care how the function’s carried out.

In the org equivalent we could have a business unit request a course, for example, and L&D responds with said course. In fact, that’s not atypical.  Yet it’s problematic in human terms. The business unit may not have done the due diligence, the performance analysis, that ensures a course is the right solution.

Ok, we could change it: the business unit could indicate the performance problem and L&D could respond. However, again there’s a problem. Without understanding how things are done, L&D’s solution won’t be contextually accurate.  Any intervention won’t reflect how things are done unless interactions occur.

And that’s the point. Any meaningful work – problem-solving, trouble-shooting, improvement, innovation, research, design etc – any learning, is complex. And, done right, they inherently require engagement and interaction.  Moreover, we also know that the best solutions come from creative friction, people interacting.  Communication and collaboration is key!

Engagement between silos works best when you mix members from each.  Or, to put it another way, breaking down the silos is the only way to get the best outputs for the important work, the work that will advance the organization whether removing errors, creating new products or processes, etc.

People are complex (the human brain is arguably the most complex thing in the known universe).  Solutions that tap into that complexity, instead of trying to avoid it, are bound to yield the best insights. We’ve now got a lot of insight into processes that facilitate getting the best outcomes. It’s time to engage with it, to the benefit of the organization.


  1. I do think much of what needs to be trained / learned within a corporate environment resides in the heads of people within that organization. This issue is how to get information from those who know it to those who need it in an efficient and effective manner. I co-founded a software company that had various divisions involving R&D, sales/marketing, implementations, support, engineering, etc. We first started to attack the issue of training via a centralized L&D function whose job was to work with key content owners to access and organization information, and to then deliver such content to those who need it in an effective way. At our start-up, things just moved too fast for that to be efficient and people needed answers now while being on-the-job. We ended up putting together a more social interactive platform where those who had questions posted them, and those who had answers answered them. The information was saved and organized. We created incentives for people to interact and answer questions through reward and recognition programs. This proved to be effective with much of the content and left the L&D function focused on foundational knowledge for new employees.

    Comment by Jeff Sant — 26 January 2017 @ 11:46 AM

  2. Thanks for the interesting post Clark. I think it is trying to tackle similar problems to one I recently posted (https://whoseeducationisitanyway.me/2016/11/13/time-for-a-rethink-on-support-services/).

    It feels, to me, more and more like the departmental silos that have evolved over the years need to break down and, presumably, many flatter more project-oriented organizations are leading the way here. The mindset needs to be one of openness for example via social platforms, like Jeff’s comment, mixing as you suggest or other forms of working out loud.

    Comment by Ian Gardner — 6 February 2017 @ 5:10 AM

  3. Thanks for the feedback! Jeff, your experience in the startup seems like a valuable direction to go: create a culture of sharing and learning together, and L&D facilitating rather than being the fount. Ian, agree that desiloization would make sense. Others (e.g. Kotter in Accelerate) argue that you have a cross-conversation in addition to the silos. Perhaps it’s needed in large, existing orgs, but others argue that those orgs will devolve. We’ll see! Thanks for the feedback.

    Comment by Clark — 6 February 2017 @ 8:03 AM

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