“We need new systems. The old ones don’t work. They’re all fragmented and siloed. We need to work better together. We need to break the silos.”

That’s a made up quote, but a recounting of a story that I have heard in many different organisations over many years now. And increasingly it feels like it’s addressing a symptom, not a cause.

In fact, it’s a phenomenon known as Conway’s Law, something that is older than me:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

— Melvin E. Conway


The way that a culture of an organisation manifests is through behaviours and things. A combination of what people do, how they interact with one another, and the tools that they build and use to do all of that.

If an organisation has built tools that reinforce structural and professional boundaries, it’s unlikely that they are the cause of siloed ways of working. They might reinforce them, but changing the systems is as likely to break down silos as changing lightbulbs.

Having said that, as the Hawthorne Experience showed, changing the lightbulbs might have an effect, but it’s likely to be coincidental.

Changing how people work, particularly when that work is about communication between people, is hard. Social structures are organic rather than mechanistic. Simply changing the mechanical bits won’t get change to happen. Information technology is a set of semiotic signs to be read as much as a machine to be changed.

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