March 27, 2006

Of silos and stovepipes

The Mar. 27 Wall Street Journal has an article filling readers in on the very latest business buzzwords (available online here, but only for subscribers). Among such jargon as delayering (firing managers) and Sox (shorthand for the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance act) is one morphologically interesting item:

Another current buzzword, "unsiloing," mangles the noun silo to make an important but simple point: Managers must cooperate across departments and functions, share resources and cross-sell products to boost the bottom line.

I'm afraid I don't quite see how the coinage unsiloing "mangles" the root form silo. Is the problem with turning a noun into a verb? Yes, yes, we all know Calvin's dictum that "verbing weirds language," but noun-to-verb enallage is so commonplace in corporate-speak — from leveraging to impacting to solutioning — that I'd think another example wouldn't even raise an eyebrow at the Journal.

Perhaps it's the creation of a verb with the un- prefix that is seen as somehow hurtful to poor silo. But the formation un-X, meaning 'to remove X from (something/someone),' has been a source of lexical innovation in English for many centuries: think of unbandage, uncap, uncloak, uncrown, unmask, unpeople, and so forth. Typically this type of un-X formation mirrors another noun-derived verb X, meaning 'to put X in/on (something/someone),' though it's also possible to create un-X neologisms without a preexisting positive form. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for un- includes such literary examples as unblouse from James Joyce ("Miss bronze unbloused her neck") and undogcollar from Dylan Thomas (Esau,.. undogcollared because of his little weakness, was scythed to the bone one harvest by mistake").

In the case of unsilo, there is indeed a positive form without the un- already in use among management types, though the two verb forms do not always reflect the semantic symmetry of such lexical pairs as mask/unmask, people/unpeople, etc. The verb silo, along with the participial adjective siloed and the verbal noun siloing, relies on the metaphorical sense of silo as a rigidly defined "vertical" organizational structure or communciation channel — also known by another metaphor, stovepipe. (See Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Word Wrester entry for further silo nuances.) The earliest example I've found for the verbal noun siloing is from Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, a 1987 book by Tom Peters (the 1988 paperback edition is searchable on Amazon and Google Book Search):

Rip apart a badly developed project and you will unfailingly find 75 percent of the slippage attributable to (1) "siloing," or sending memos and minutes up and down vertical organizational "silos" or "stovepipes" for decisions...

Note that this use of siloing doesn't mean 'putting a silo in (something)' or 'putting (something) in a silo' (the OED has non-metaphorical uses of transitive silo, as in "siloing grass," back to 1883). Rather, siloing here is better defined as 'communicating up and down an organizational silo.' This sense closely emulates the development of the verb stovepipe, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as 'transmit (information) directly through levels of a hierarchy.' We have heard much in recent years about the "stovepiping" of faulty intelligence directly to the White House from Bush loyalists, as in Seymour Hersh's 2003 New Yorker piece, "The Stovepipe."

Organizational silos and stovepipes are almost always discussed in disparaging terms, as hindrances to the efficient management of a company (or a school, or a health-care system, or a presidential administration). So it's not surprising that a term has developed for the breaking down of the silo structure in order to promote "horizontal" cooperation across an organization. Unstovepiping is a bit unwieldy, so that leaves unsiloing. (One could also imagine desiloing, like the dewatering of New Orleans, though that doesn't seem to have caught on.) Similarly, corporate leaders would prefer their organizations to be unsiloed rather than siloed, to use the participial adjective forms. Here are a few recent citations of the verb from the Factiva database:

Wall Street & Technology, 1 June 2004
There seems to be no shortage of trends and technologies to focus on, from algorithmic trading to unsiloing the institution.

Delaney Report, 26 Sep 2005
Agencies siloed these disciplines, while some unsiloed them, putting them all under one roof in a bid for greater efficiency, control, profitability and a higher level of cross-disciplinary teamwork.

Oxford Industries Earnings Conference Call, 6 Oct 2005
I think we've actually tried to unsilo the business with this strategy, and really bring the common merchandising, sourcing and back ends of what was the individual slack company and the individual shirt company into one group.

Getting rid of those nasty silos and stovepipes is no doubt easier said than done. But one can visualize management consultants spreading the gospel of unsiloing, perhaps with PowerPoint demonstrations that make the silos magically disappear from organizational charts. The Wall Street Journal quotes David D'Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, as saying that unsiloing is especially attractive to new CEOs: "Suddenly they're in charge and they want everyone to play together nicely in the sandbox." That's some impressive metaphor-muddling there: everybody out of the silo and into the sandbox!

[Update: See Semantic Compositions for further thoughts on the silo/stovepipe metaphor, as well as the competing metaphor of the pipeline.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 27, 2006 11:32 PM