Can IT Eliminate Silos? Or Should You Just Learn to Live with Them?

Loraine Lawson

Joke: What do you get when the government decides to break down information silos?
Punchline: Different silos.


Funny, huh? Or rather, it would be, if it weren't actually true.


The first federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, recently told an industry group that many e-government efforts simply replaced vertical technology silos with horizontal, cross-agency silos.




After reading the story on his remarks, I'm still not sure how Kundra intends to address that problem. He mentioned something about asking the American people for ideas and something else about dynamic data feeds. I'm hoping the details just didn't make it into the article, because surely there are plans to address this, right? Right?




While I was appalled by the remark, Gartner Analyst Andrea Di Maio didn't blink an eye. In a recent post, titled, succinctly enough, "Government will always be siloed," Di Maio says in many cases, government's so-called "successful transformation programs" just devolved into different silos. The promised transformation didn't stick.


Likewise, Di Maio is skeptical that Web 2.0 approaches will be able to dissolve government silos:


"For the time being it seems to me that initiatives tagged as 'open government data; just revive the old silos, with a transparency touch: whoever is accountable for information is supposed to make it available, for others to figure out how to use that."


While Di Maio doesn't say silos are universally unavoidable, it does make you wonder: Is the private sector any better? Somehow, I doubt that - especially considering Rick Sherman's recent observation that businesses keep building data silos. And recently, I read that information is simply proliferating so fast, silos are unavoidable.


I'm starting to wonder, like Joe Bugajski of the Burton Group asked in April, whether silos are inevitable?


Perhaps it'd be more useful to stop bemoaning silos and look at easy solutions-including mashups - to work around them. While mashups are not true integration in the traditional sense of connecting systems, mashups can provide a quick way to pull information from silos and use it in new and interesting ways, effectively eliminating the need for some types of integration.


Of course, as a journalist, I'd love to see more government data made accessible to the public and I'd love to see what types of mashups could be created with that data. But even here, Di Maio sees problems. While it's great for citizens, vendors, social groups and various other "intermediaries" to create mashups with government data, Di Maio wonders what the ramifications will be if government agencies create their own mashups. As an example:


"Think about an agency creating a mashup from sex offender lists (published at state level) and primary school locations (published at county level): would that agency be accountable for revealing a high density of sex offenders around primary schools?"


Perhaps that's a bad example, since most people would be on board with knowing that information. But I believe the bigger point is this: Data is neutral, until you add context - as mashups would do-and then it can quickly become political.


That rings pretty hollow to me, however. Yes, I suppose it could be politically risky for organizations to create mashups. But, really - government agencies already manipulate information for political gain. I'm not sure how mashups would change that, other than making it easier and quicker to accomplish.


But I would like to hear more about the persistence of silos. Are silos always among us, even until the ends of the earth? Must IT fight against silos, even if it's a war you'll never win? Or is there a way - perhaps with mashups or other enterprise 2.0 tools - to learn to live with silos?

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Jun 18, 2009 2:13 AM Graham Berrisford Graham Berrisford  says:

Universal access to all government stored data is not a declared requirement. IS architecture is about trade offs. A data silo has advantages as well as disadvantages. Data duplication cannot be entirely eliminated...

Jun 18, 2009 12:17 PM John O'Gorman John O'Gorman  says:

When I was a consultant in the late nineties, I heard an expression that seems to amplify that unfortunate sentiment about silos: 'Embrace the chaos. The chaos is your friend.' I seem to recall a similar exhortation along the lines of: To resist is futile. Embrace the borg.

These kinds of statements should raise the hackles of every businessman that has ever paid for an application that doesn't do what his business needs it to do, or has paid for one or more so-called experts to learn their trade on his dime while leaving his business with more overhead to pay for due to sloppy work.

As Mr Dylan opined: There's a hard rain gonna fall...on software companies that cannot or will not deliver the kind of reliable, predictable and functional software and services akin to those delivered by a building architect. 

Jun 19, 2009 5:07 AM Mike McGarrity Mike McGarrity  says:

Silos are rampant in state government on both the IT and business side. Much of this is due to legislative funding models that have program specific constraints driving a very narrow line of business focus on services. I see the tide shifting slowly and gathering momentum for change as citizens push for more integrated services and agencies respond to integrate services.

At the same time the cost of replication of similar service/application functions, data components and funding constraints are becoming opportunities and driving cross business and technology domain collaboration in a very Darwinian sense.

With all the pressures driving change, more complex rules, shorter deadlines budgetary constraints. Survival in chaos is hinging more on cross boundary IT and business collaboration than ever before.

Jun 20, 2009 1:52 AM Will Hixson Will Hixson  says:

Just as mid and senior level managers gather responsibilities, office space and headcount, they (or members of their sphere of influence) want to keep close the data they "own". I can't begin to count the number of conversations I have had with corporate managers who adamantly insist that the data should be their's to manage, validate, update, publish and control, in fact. I suppose it is human nature to "acquire" things, but corporate, or government, data should not be one of those things. There are no valid reasons for data silos, just excuses that hide laziness on the part of IT, or "data greed" on the part of the business unit leaders.


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