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September 15, 2003
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Silos Are for Grain

Silos are fixtures on farms throughout America. They are mass storage facilities for the wonderful bounty of farms in an industry which is arguably the most successful industry ever in American history. Our ability to do amazing things with agriculture is attributed not only to science and technology, but to the industrious and innovative work of generations of people who turn raw land into bountiful gardens.

Unfortunately, while silos are wonderful agriculture tools, such "structures" cause trouble and serious risk of failure in public administration. Every organization has various "silos" inside the bureaucracy. They are walled off, separated areas of function or perceived power in which information may flow in but doesn’t necessarily flow out regularly or smoothly.

When there are too many separate centers of powers, each concerned about its individual survival rather than larger organizational or community interest, the risks are strong that policies will be created without key information being available, or that organizations won’t work as well as they might. We will spend more on local government and not get as much output as we could. A prominent HR example will make the point.

Workers’ compensation is a challenge for everyone in management. Not only is it very expensive and very complicated, but it also drains organizations of productive work and can harm morale. It is essential that employees who are injured in the line of duty receive extraordinary help from their workplace family. This means timely and caring help with their medical bills and their lost income.

That was the intent behind workers’ compensation laws when they took root in the United States. This scenario, however, has been clouded over time by laws, which are often the result of effective employee organization lobbying, aggressive plaintiff attorneys and medical confusion. All of this has exactly the wrong impact on already-strained local government budgets at the worst time.

Pressures from above in the form of state budget lunacy increase the pressures and hurt the services of counties.

If this isn’t tough enough, allowing organizational units to hurt each other by lack of communication compounds the problem. For example, some significant portion of employees who file frequent workers’ compensation claims are also likely to be "frequent flyers" when it comes to the use of health insurance benefits. They are likely to also be frequent unscheduled absentees.

They may also be in the rather small group of employees who drain energy from supervisors by constantly being on the brink of performance or behavioral trouble—trouble which should be a basis for counseling, disciplinary action or separation from the organization.

Often, however, supervisors who lack confidence or knowledge about dealing with such marginal performance simply "walk by" the problems and don’t address them. The result is the need for overall employee work/life management by the organization to a degree not currently available in most organizations.

For example, workers’ compensation may be part of a risk management department, which may be inside a finance organization. That group may not speak to or coordinate activities with the benefits administrator who may work in another agency, such as human resources.

By creating separate organization silos in which workers’ compensation does not speak to benefits, which may not speak to HR, which may not speak to supervisors in the field departments, and with no one speaking to the employee, the result serves no one’s interest at all except those of the poorly performing employee, and perhaps the newly retained plaintiff’s attorney.

Under these circumstances, a silo creates organizational blind spots. In the blind spots, marginally performing employees have a chance to hide and continue to be barely productive or nonproductive for years.

In the HR Doctor’s experience, it is extremely valuable to examine the design and structure of the organization to identify where such silos may exist and how to take active steps to dismantle them and eliminate blind spots.

This may mean taking an overall organizational "case management" approach. In the management of attendance, workers’ compensation, health benefits, and other areas, we live in a sea of single-focus practices. Even when we hire an outside organization to manage workers’ compensation, and the company swears up and down that it will practice aggressive "case management," the reality is that the case management these firms are talking about is the management of the workers’ compensation portion of the much larger set of issues. The organization itself must take action to ensure that the kind of case management it practices is the much more effective organizationwide "anti-silo" form of case management.

Until we start doing this, we will find that workers’ compensation will be out of our control. We will find that health benefit utilization will drive continuous and very ugly cost increases in health insurance. We will find behavior and performance failures that go unchecked, leading to workplace violence cases being more likely, sexual harassment and discrimination claims occurring more frequently, a more fertile field for grievances, and impaired service delivery.

While there may be several hundred excuses that can be offered about the rising cost of medical inflation, what shines through is if we don’t take as individual appointed and elected leaders the kind of "view from 40,000 feet" about what is going on, we are only causing our own trouble. As two folk singers of the 1960s (Fred Martin and Vince Neil) would say, "It’s time to tear down the walls" and look at more effective ways to give the public better service and fewer long-range costs – starting by eliminating our own blind spots.

Think about this the next time you drive by a farm silo, or, for those urban readers, see a picture of one!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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