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The risks and disadvantages of data silos

The word silo comes from the Greek word, siros, which translates to “pit for holding grain.”

Fast forward a few centuries and the most common use of “silo” outside of the farming community relates to data—but the “pit” analogy still fits. Data silos are black holes where data goes to die, or is limited to only a select few within specific departments in an organization.

More formally, a data silo can be defined as a repository of data under the control of one department that is walled off from the rest of the organization. Data silos can arise innocently enough out of the fact that different departments have unique responsibilities and goals.

Yet, over time, these silos tend to become entrenched and increasingly isolated, making broader awareness of what data exists throughout the organization difficult, and the sharing of that data all but impossible. This can hinder the ability of your organization to effectively locate and leverage data, creating a ripple effect that limits collaboration and cooperation—and thwarting innovation and efficiency.

The bottom line: Data silos present a range of risks and disadvantages to your company. Understanding how silos negatively impact on specific aspects of your business can be the first step toward identifying, and ultimately eliminating, them.

Business operations

Silos can impact the full range of your business operations at your company, standing in the way of working together toward common business goals. Even one department data silo can gum up the works across the organization. Multiple silos across different business operations are even worse, making it challenging for just about anyone in your company to fully leverage the power of data that is wasting away silos.

Data silos can also hamper business operations in corporate cultures in which different departments tend to compete with each other instead of collaborating. In an environment such as these, silos can deliver a double whammy – data is difficult to share and the turf wars that exist stand in the way of collaboration. The result is a severely limited opportunity for your company to leverage data to reach its full potential.

Sharing survey data—a great first step to breaking down silos

Survey data is one example of data that can end up unnecessarily siloed—and can actually be one of the easiest ways to initiate a culture of data sharing in your organization.

Survey data gathered by one department may be extremely useful to other parts of the organization, but as SurveyMonkey CIO Eric Johnson emphasized about survey data in Success tips for CIOs, “People might be gathering really interesting information from employees, business partners, or customers.  But, that data just sits there. Never to be seen again.”

This problem can be a two-way street in which the department that does the survey doesn’t think to share it, while other departments aren’t communicating in ways that would make them aware that a survey is being conducted. 

For instance, a marketing survey might reveal some key insights that would benefit the product team, finance, and customer service. In cultures in which data silos have contributed to limited communication and collaboration, this information might remain solely in marketing simply due to familiar habits in which sharing isn’t part of the culture.

Yet, survey data, because it is typically easy to access and analyze, can be a great first step toward evolving to a culture in which silos are shuttered and information is shared more freely.

And SurveyMonkey makes it easy to share the survey process with more team members. Survey owners can simply click the share icon and check the box that says, “Allow people on your team to share this survey with other people.” Collaborators can then head to their own My Surveys page and start sharing surveys by clicking on the share icon.

Deeper dive: 4 ways surveys support data-driven decisions

Another common example of how a data silo could be damaging to your business operations focuses on email marketing applications. Marketing is able to get key information related to their email marketing, but if the application isn’t connected to a broader CRM system, the marketing team might miss out on other relevant data that may prove extremely useful in engaging with customers.

By connecting your company’s CRM system to the email marketing application, marketing will then have greater access to better identify the clients and leads that they need to communicate with. Conversely, with access to email marketing data sales and other departments can access key data that can help support their efforts.

Beyond these direct benefits, this type of sharing can, over time, break down silos and lead to greater collaboration, innovation, and efficiency.

Data research

A fundamental tenet of good research is to access as much relevant information as possible so you can get a full assessment of the issue you are exploring. Data silos can stymie those efforts, leading to research that is incomplete or misses some vital information that could impact results, as well as the ensuring actions taken based on those results.

For instance, say your marketing department is trying to get a better sense of what types of product enhancements would be most attractive to your customers, as well as the price they would be willing to pay for those enhancements. As part of your initial research, you can review past surveys and feedback to get a good benchmark of what product features customers have responded to in the past.

Yet what if your product and customer services teams have gathered their own data through surveys as well as feedback from product support and customer service calls? If that information is locked in silos you may not even know that it exists, and even if you do, if it’s difficult to access and analyze you are not much better off.

The risks here are clear: If you draw conclusions based simply on the marketing data and information, you could make recommendations that don’t take into account key feedback from other departments. Which, in turn, might lead to those recommendations being off target, or not fully leveraging the potential of certain product upgrades.

In an environment in which data flows more freely across departments you can quickly get a more holistic picture through your initial research, allowing you to better frame survey questions, increase efficiency, and end up with far better data-driven outcomes.

Data analysis

Similar to the data research process, silos can hamstring data analysis by leaving out data and information that could skew the results and recommendations generated through your analysis.

For instance, if you are hiring for a position in sales, your department may assess the characteristics that your top salespeople share. That effort may yield a decent profile of potential candidates to target. Through this analysis, you create a job description that you believe will resonate with those types of individuals who are likely to become top performers.

Yet, consider the possibility that HR might have a far more detailed research and analysis on what attributes and experiences of candidates consistently lead to new hires becoming top performers. There may be key factors outside of your limited research and analysis that could provide a more robust profile of your ideal candidate, as well as key benefits and perks that would prove to be strong motivators for top talent to join your company.

If the HR data is siloed, having ready access to this key information can be challenging, and in some company cultures all but impossible to get good visibility into.

Finding concrete ways to demonstrate the value of data sharing can help break down silos across your organization and open the door to significantly more robust analysis to drive all types of decisions, including consistently making strong hires.

Data security

Silos aren’t simply a nuisance. They can be downright dangerous when it comes to data security.

When data silos are prevalent throughout your organization, it increases the likelihood that data security protocols are inconsistent from department to department, and that there is not a uniform and consistent way to communicate potential threats. This scenario can be a recipe for disaster, leaving your company vulnerable to damaging data leaks, or worse yet, a data breach that could impact customers, and cause irreparable damage to your company’s reputation.

Breaking down silos and connecting all of your data so it can be stored and accessed in one place makes it far easier to quickly identify traffic patterns or red flags that might represent a security issue. And in instances in which a leak or breach does occur, having your data centralized allows you to address issues more rapidly and efficiently to limit the damage both to your data and your reputation.

Data silos are a clear security risk. Eliminating them could be one of the most important steps your company takes as part of its cyber security strategy. 

Data storage

Say you’re one of those people who have a few junk drawers at home where you toss a wide variety of items at will. Now think about how hard it is to find that tape measure when you really need it.

A similar, but much more significant scenario plays out when your company’s data is locked into silos scattered across your organization. No doubt, it makes sense to efficiently store your data—but scattered and disconnected silos are not the place to do it.

Data silos hamper streamlined and cost-efficient data storage efforts by wasting storage space and making it confusing and time-consuming to quickly find data that would be useful.

Yet, as you establish a more centralized data system, you can store it in ways that are easy to access, but also secure. Once you establish a centralized data storage approach, make sure that users are aware of protocols around storage, and have consistent training on how to access and protect it.

Quality and credibility of data

If your data lacks quality and credibility, then what’s it really worth? Not much. And in some instances, poor quality data can be even more damaging than no data at all as it can lead you to false conclusions and greater mistrust. Not only does poor quality bring the credibility of your data into question, but it can also undermine your professional credibility if others throughout your company suspect the data you are sharing is flawed.

Siloed data stored on different databases can have inconsistencies between different teams and departments. While the siloed data sets might have similarities, there might also be glaring differences that can create confusion and mistrust.

Additionally, data that is mired in a silo tends to not age well, as over time it becomes outdated, irrelevant, and increasingly difficult to access as technology evolves. Because centralized data gets used more often and is more valuable, there are clear incentives to keep it up to date as well as to more readily weed out any inconsistencies or duplication. If you want your data to be in sync with other data and information from throughout your company, get it out of the silo and into the cloud where it can be continually updated and used in more productive and dynamic ways.

Collaborative culture

Data often gets a wrap for taking the human element out of doing business. Yet that assessment misses the mark in many ways. For instance, you can use data to help deepen relationships with customers by gathering information on their preferences and behaviors. Additionally, when you get data out of silos and into circulation in your company it can catalyze to drive greater collaboration and cooperation, which can result in better ideas, more innovation, and even a boost to employee morale by reducing the frustration and inter-department rivalries that can emerge in siloed environments.

And companies with data silos run the risk of departments themselves becoming   siloed, and increasingly isolated. In these scenarios, coordinated decisions across departments become more difficult and work efforts are often duplicated.

Breaking down silos can build up stronger relationships and teamwork throughout your company, and help everyone align behind a shared mission and goals.

Start busting down silos now!

Silos might have been useful for the ancient Greeks, and still serve a purpose for modern-day farmers. Yet when it comes to business, they are collaboration, moral, and performance killers.

By breaking down silos you not only unleash the full power of your data, but also give the people in your organization the tools and information they need to deliver great results and collaborate in new and innovative ways.

Check out how SurveyMonkey can put you on the fast track to integrating survey data into your favorite apps as well as new ways to readily share survey data.

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