Siloing vs. Specialization

We often hear that “working in silos” is an undesirable practice. And so it is. But the precise interpretation of the phrase appears to vary from person to person, and from organization to organization. This article is an attempt at clarification of this somewhat muddy issue.

Some folks in the Agile world apparently associate siloing with specialization, as evidenced by the practice of attempting to cross-train the members of a Scrum or XP team so that anyone on the team can perform any needed function. This viewpoint stretches the meaning of the “cross-functional” team to encompass the “generalized” team, to the point that specialization can seem undesirable.

The power of specialization

In the sphere of economics, specialization (termed “division of labour” by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations) is responsible for raising the standard of living of all participants in the economic system. The reasons for this are relatively simple:

  • A person focusing on a single task is able to get more done in a given amount of time.
  • The gain in productivity from this specialization can result in the creation of excess product (which can be traded for the produce of others).
  • The productivity gain can also result in making extra time available for other activities.

Imagine for a moment what it must have been like in the days of the pioneer, when each family group was, to a large extent, self-sufficient when it came to producing the food, shelter and clothing essential to life. Imagine yourself in that situation, and think about how much of your time you would have had to devote to the task of simply staying alive. Answer: pretty much all of it!

In the product development world, specialization has similar effects, and is similarly desirable. In short, division of labor (specialization) is a time-saver.

Siloing is not the same as specialization

“Working in silos” means “not exchanging information.” The fact that siloing happens to isolate people performing different functions (specialties), while not surprising, is actually just a side-effect of the human tendency to cluster according to the “birds of a feather” principle (e.g. the software developers are all on the third floor).

But specialization and siloing are two separate phenomena. A silo can exist even if none of the people in it share the same specialty (e.g. none of the multi-disciplinary Scrum teams on our project communicate with each other). Likewise, a group of people sharing the same specialty constitutes a silo only if the group doesn’t exchange information outside itself.

Real world application

Here’s a simple formula for higher productivity, regardless of the physical clustering of the members of your organization:

  • Specialize (divide the labor)
  • Communicate (avoid siloing)

Communication, not generalization, is the key to increased productivity.


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