The Grammarphobia Blog

The silo syndrome

Q: A recent article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle mentioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to “break down the silos” that have led to abuses in the New York State government. How is “silos” being used here?

A: Everyone, it seems, is blaming silos for management screw-ups these days, and we don’t mean the silos found on farms. In this case, “silo” is a business term that refers to a blinkered kind of management style.

Managers who work in a “silo” (or a “siloed” environment) operate in isolation, focusing strictly on their own narrow concerns and not sharing ideas with their peers.

Not many standard dictionaries have caught up with this use of “silo.” One of the few is the Compact Oxford English Dictionary Online, which defines the noun “silo” this way:

“A system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others.” The example given: “It’s vital that team members step out of their silos and start working together.”

The dictionary also describes the use of “silo” as a modifier, using this example: “We have made significant strides in breaking down that silo mentality.”

Two very different articles that appeared early last month are excellent illustrations of how “silo” is being used these days.

An article in Billboard magazine, “7 Ways to Leverage Facebook,” contained this advice from Geoffrey Colon of Ogilvy & Mather:

“Whenever you can, always try to cross over to the physical realm. … Don’t silo yourself into building content just for Facebook. Use Facebook as a springboard to drive business results in the real world.”

And an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education includes this quote by Emilie M. Townes, the new dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School:

“At Yale, every professional school is in its own silo, but at Vanderbilt they’ve broken down the silos, and I have more conversation partners not only internal to the divinity school but throughout the university.”

As you might suspect, this is a relatively young usage. The earliest example we’ve been able to find in online databases was published 21 years ago.

Both the noun and the adjective appeared in a long article in the journal Training & Development on Aug. 1, 1992. A management consultant, Geary Rummler, is quoted as saying this:

“The classic way to picture an organization is to show many independent functions, usually a hierarchy of boxes or circles. … The problem is that with this view, management begins to evolve as a set of independent functions. … All that, of course, leads to the phenomenon that Douglas Aircraft company calls ‘functional silos.’”

Later, the piece refers to the “silo syndrome.” Rummler himself uses the words “turfdom” and “vertical mindset” to refer to this management style.

He adds that what Douglas Aircraft called “silos” are called “chimneys,” “towers,” or “foxholes” by some of his other client companies. As we know by now, “silos” is the term that’s survived.

We found a scattering of usages in 1994, then the term began appearing with greater frequency. By 2000 this use of “silo” had gone mainstream. An article in Time magazine in December of that year included this sentence:

“As a result, isolated in their intellectual silos, scientists and their technological sidekicks literally ‘reduced’ human knowledge to myriad, mutually incomprehensible pinpoints of niche expertise.”

Now it looks as if non-agricultural “silos” are here to stay.

Our noun “silo” (the farmyard kind) was first recorded in writing in 1835. It originally meant “a pit or underground chamber used for the storage of grain, roots, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later in the 19th century, “silo” also became a verb meaning to store in a silo. And silos became the familiar cylindrical structures that are so much a part of rural landscapes.  Here are some illustrative OED citations:

1904: “The first silos were simply pits dug in the ground…. Since about 1875 silos of stone, brick and wood have come into use.” (From the Farmer’s Cyclopedia of  Agriculture by Earley V. Wilcox & Clarence B. Smith.)

1948: “The silos stood up tall and straight, grey against the dazzling sky. A line of wheat-laden vehicles moved slowly up towards the hopper.” (From the periodical Coast to Coast: Australian Stories.)

In the 1950s, “silo” acquired another (and less bucolic) meaning—the underground housing for a guided missile.

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1958 issue of the New York Times: “The system will be protected against neutralization in an enemy attack because the missiles will be installed in concrete-lined underground silos.”

English adopted “silo” from the Spanish silo in the 19th century. But there’s some disagreement about its earlier etymology.

The OED says the Spanish silo originally came from classical words meaning a pit for storing grain—sirus in Latin and siros in Greek.

But the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology doubts that origin, since “the change from r to l in Spanish is phonetically abnormal.”

Furthermore, Chambers says, the Greek siros was “a rare foreign term” peculiar to Asia Minor and “not likely to emerge in Castilian Spain.”

Instead, the dictionary says the Spanish silo is “probably of pre-Roman origin and from the same source as Basque zilo, zulo dugout, with the basic meaning of a cave or shelter for keeping grain.”

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