Building Bridges Across Academic Silos
In agriculture, a silo is a vertical structure with a very important function: storing and protecting grain. In academia, a silo is also a vertical structure, but one which organizes support and resources for the individuals—faculty, staff, and students—within its domain. Resources in a school can be better managed in silos than if each individual faculty member had to, for instance, arrange for administrative support services, coordinate transfer patterns, and evaluate students for support services.
Silos are not necessarily bad things. Although they serve a purpose, silos become problematic when resources, like ideas or social capital, are not shared across an institution. Keeling, Underhile, and Wall (2007) note that we need to intentionally attend to both vertical structures and horizontal structures in academia in order to maximize student success. Horizontal structures include programs and activities that cut across silos: “A curricular approach to learning, student development, assessment, and retention depends on creating horizontal structures, forces and dynamics that intersect with vertical systems and structures” (Keeling et al, 2007). That is, an institution is strongest when it has both silos and bridges between silos.
The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) is a large institution, serving approximately 63,000 students across three main campuses and three extension centers around the metropolitan Baltimore area. CCBC’s Teaching Learning Roundtable includes a diverse group of faculty and staff from across all disciplines and services of the college who meet monthly to discuss current issues affecting the college community. The Teaching Learning Roundtable committee set out to discover whether silos exist at CCBC, what is currently being done to bridge them, and what additional actions can be taken. We initially researched breaking down silos, but soon decided it might be better to use the image of building bridges between silos—after all, if a silo were broken down, it could no longer function as intended. In the current economic climate, community colleges must be careful with their already over-stretched budgets. Working to bridge academic silos will save both time and money by avoiding wasteful repetition and sharing intellectual innovation. More importantly, these bridges will also build a sense of community, not only among the various college employees, but among the students we serve. A student who feels that he or she belongs in, and to, a college is more likely to be successful.
Historical and Structural Silos
Despite excellent progress in creating a unified organizational structure for CCBC, in some ways, differences in culture, size, and history remain among the Catonsville, Dundalk, and Essex main campuses and the three extension centers. All locations are geographically separated and have different histories. Originally, the main campuses were independent colleges, under one board of trustees, serving different communities within Baltimore County. The differences in identity and geography, and the absence of a common meeting facility or main campus, could contribute to a reduction in communication and collaboration. Also, viewed from the macro level, it seems that CCBC falls into four major silos: administration, faculty, enrollment and support services, and classified employees. Of course, each of these silos contains silos within it. For example, administration breaks down into credit and non-credit, faculty into full-time and part-time, enrollment services into advising on one side and records and registration on the other, and there is even a divide in classified staff between office personnel and facilities/maintenance. It would not be difficult to identify additional silos within these silos, and while there are sound reasons why the college is organized in this fashion—to carry out not only its long-term mission but its day-to-day operations as well—the real question focuses on what happens when silo-thinking narrows individual focus, thwarts creativity, and creates barriers not only to the college community’s success but, most importantly, to the success of our students.
Silos and Success
Silos affect professional and institutional success in both positive and negative ways. Silos occur when individuals work together to nurture or more fully develop their common characteristics (Capener, 2015). Harvard University has as its model the creation of silos to promote excellence within its disciplines (Capener, 2015). This structure benefits not only the success of the institution, but the professional success of the individuals within each silo as well. Harvard’s model has been so widely recognized that many other institutions have attempted to replicate it. Unfortunately, most institutions do not have the vast resources of Harvard. While silos may promote excellence within narrow disciplines, by their very nature, they lead to a narrow potential view. Focusing so much within a discipline or school, instructors may miss opportunities to develop successful partnerships outside their department. A negative aspect of silo creation is the lack of innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration (Capener, 2015).
The development of silos can benefit students when support, deep connections, and relationships thrive within the intentional environment. However, that same silo development can prevent students from networking with those outside of their silo boundaries (Brown, 2016). Programs that focus on student success allow for both horizontal as well as vertical movement across silos. This movement increases student success which in turn benefits the success of the institution (Keeling et al., 2007).
Cultivating the development of discipline excellence while promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, innovation, and student success allows for the best of both worlds, highlighting the potential positive effects of silos while minimizing potential negative effects. Overall, this produces a collegewide learning community with shared accountability for learning outcomes. Keeling et al. (2007) note a positive link between student success and the strength of this horizontal structure. CCBC has implemented several successful horizontal structures that cut across faculty and staff and discipline silos: pathways, culturally responsive teaching and learning, global learning, service learning, the community book connection, and other high-impact practices.
As noted, silos provide necessary vertical structure to the college (Keeling, et al., 2007). They also serve to protect the integrity of certain parts of the institution. For example, senior staff need to consider the college’s role in the larger community, keeping a careful eye on federal and state funding. Community colleges are known for being uniquely suited to meeting the needs of local businesses, but college resources are limited, so academic schools may end up competing with each other (Capener, 2015). Within academic schools, faculty value and cultivate deep learning in their discipline, aiming to protect and promote their discipline’s place in the college. Even students seek out silos to create community and friendship (Brown, 2016).
Although discussing students in silos, Brown (2016) suggests that to overcome the segregation of silos, people need to intentionally design meaningful activities to break down silos, like intergroup dialogue or cross-cultural events. Campagna (2016) suggests creating cross-functional teams to contribute to the success of any college initiative. Capener (2015) urges faculty to share significant learning through cross-department communication. Moving beyond interaction between faculty of different departments, Fram (2015) reports on colleges that encourage teaching multidisciplinary content, breaking down department silos to promote student success.
Strong leadership and community buy-in are integral to achieving this intentionality. Campus leaders need to communicate a clear vision, and faculty need to align their own professional goals with the goals of the institution (Capener, 2015). This sentiment is echoed by Govindarajan (2011), who noted that it is the role of campus leaders to create a compelling case for innovation and a fully aligned strategic innovation agenda. A consistent message from leadership across the campus can lead to a cultural change (Thorp and Goldstein, 2010).
At some colleges, breaking down silos requires a cultural shift. This requires trust, sharing of resources and information, and a shift in mindset. Instructors may need to orient their professional goals to the goal of the college (Capener, 2015). Administrators may need to build in more time for cross-disciplinary planning. Researchers may need to share their projects and look for cross-disciplinary partners (Kolowich, 2010). Faculty and staff may need to work on more horizontal structures to promote student success in academics as well as personal development. By taking these steps, colleges and universities can build a culture in which the whole campus is a learning community (Keeling et al., 2007).
The CCBC Teaching Learning Roundtable committee hopes to initiate discussion of the effects silo thinking may have on the college, instruction, and students. At CCBC, there are many existing bridges. These programs are successful because they were intentionally designed; have strong support from the administration, faculty, and staff; and have a positive impact on student engagement. The committee hopes to encourage and support members of the college community as they continue exploring ways to collaborate with colleagues from different parts of the college. An important bridge the committee plans to work on is between students and college faculty, staff, and administration, to invite student voices into the conversations.
Brown, S. (2016, May 15). Are colleges’ diversity efforts putting students in “silos’? The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Campagna, W. (2016, April 20). Hurry up and change! 5 ways higher ed can start transforming. Infinitive. Retrieved from www.infinitive.com/2016/04/20/hurry-change-5-ways-higher-ed-can-start-transforming
Capener, D. (2015, August 25). A classic example how difficult it is to fight the silo mentality and become a true learning organization: Misalignment in higher education. Linkedin. Retrieved from www.linkedin.com/pulse/classic-example-how-difficult-fight-silo-mentality-become-don-capener
Fram, E. (2015, June 3). Are academic silos starting to crumble? Linkedin.
Govindarajan, V. (2011, August 9). The first two steps toward breaking down silos in your organization. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from hbr.org/2011/08/the-first-two-steps-toward-breaking-down-silos
Keeling, R. P., Underhile, R., & Wall, A. F. (2007). Horizontal and vertical structures: The dynamics of organization in higher education. Liberal Education, 93(4). Retrieved from www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/horizontal-and-vertical-structures-dynamics-organization-higher
Kolowich, S. (2010, January 18). Blasting academic silos. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/01/18/silos
Thorp, H., & Goldsein, B. (2010, August 29). How to create a problem-solving institution. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Create-a/124153
Prepared by the Teaching Learning Roundtable Research and Best Practices Committee: Bonnie Becker, Judy Boyle, Tim Davis, Dallas Dolan, Virginia Forster, Maura Hill, Colleen Kline, and William Osborne
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.