Eliminating Data Silos

Stephen DeAngelis

March 18, 2019

Silos have been symbols of farming for decades. Today, however, one is more likely to read about data silos in businesses than storage silos on farms. Business silos, and the data contained in them, are remnants of industrial age organizations. Half a dozen years ago Laurie Sullivan (@LaurieSullivan) wrote, “In the past the departments like sales, marketing, customer service, public relations, and supply chain typically used their own datasets, keeping the information in silos.”[1] Unfortunately, keeping information in silos is not “in the past,” but remains a challenge still plaguing many organizations. Today’s business environment requires organizations to integrate and collaborate more effectively. This can be difficult for enterprises operating with structures better suited for the industrial age than the information age. Sullivan asserts siloed data and information are among the most deleterious characteristics of industrial age enterprises. “It turns out one of the biggest obstacles to turning data into actionable insight.” she writes, “is that companies don’t share data across departments and partners effectively.”

The problem with data silos

“The age of big data,” writes business consultant Justin Stoltzfus, “has brought us a prodigious number of new ways to present information and solve problems. … However, there have been challenges and obstacles along the way, and one of the biggest ones is the big data silo.”[2] Why are data silos a problem? Stoltzfus explains, “The data is the ‘lifeblood’ of the system — the raison d’etre for any architecture. The data is ‘served’ to users in infinite new and compelling ways — but it all rests on inter-connectedness.” The problem is that silos are designed to separate rather than connect. Stoltzfus explains, “When this free flow of data is impeded for any reason, professionals talk about that as a ‘data silo.’ … The data is being locked away from general use or generalized access. It exists somewhere, but it can’t get to where it can be useful.” One might reasonably ask why business executives would allow data silos to be created. Fredrik Forslund, a vice president at Blancco, explains, “Data silos tend to arise naturally in large businesses because each organizational unit has different goals, priorities and responsibilities, as well as different technical systems or platforms in place.”[3] Like many other analysts, Forslund believes data silos inhibit effective operations. “Not only can this isolation hinder visibility and access to critical data,” he writes, “it may also negatively affect the ability for intra-departmental collaboration — and subsequently organizational effectiveness and success.”

Companies striving to transform into digital enterprises must work ruthlessly to break down old data silos and be vigilant in preventing new ones from developing. Geoff Tudor, Vice President and General Manager of Cloud Services at Panzura, explains, “Data is being spread rapidly across the enterprise and across organizations from DevOps, HR and IoT to SaaS applications like Office 365 and Dropbox. As a result, data islands are forming and living in separate silos on separate infrastructure and sites. This has created governance and compliance headaches, making the unified search for data across the enterprise practically impossible.”[4] He asks, “How valuable are your cloud efforts if decision makers cannot quickly find and mobilize trusted data crucial to big data analytics, security, compliance and other key functions? When can we get to a ‘single source of truth’ for big data that allows business and technology leaders to confidently analyze and control key data across all clouds?” Those are excellent questions every CEO needs to answer.

Eliminating data silos

According to Deloitte analysts, digital enterprises are characterized by their ability to break down data silos. “Digital maturity,” they write, “is an ongoing, enterprise-wide process. It aligns strategy, workforce, technology, and culture to ensure an organization can continually change as technology alters customer and competitor behaviors.”[5] They go on to note that the free exchange of data is critical for a digital enterprise. They report, “More than 70 percent of organizations furthest along the path toward digital maturity organize around cross-functional teams.” They continue, “Successful collaboration requires shared goals and incentives that can create new mindsets by exposing employees to different ways of thinking and engaging. New mindsets and working styles, in turn, can strengthen the company culture. Digitally maturing companies understand the connections. They intentionally cultivate collaboration and digital cultures, which allows them to rely on their employees to embrace and push digital change.” As Tudor notes, collaboration requires all parts of an enterprise to operate using a single source of truth.

“Despite many digital-transformation efforts in recent years,” asserts Mark Reisig (@ReisigMark), product marketing manager at Aras, “companies are still overwhelmed by countless data silos and disconnected information. These disconnects, and the resulting lack of visibility and collaboration across the enterprise, lead to a multitude of business inefficiencies.”[6] How can data silos be eliminated and a single source of truth established? It’s a question easier asked than answered. Why? Reisig explains, “Most silos were created to fulfill a legitimate business need within a specific domain.” That’s make them difficult to eliminate. Many analysts believe the wrecking ball that will be used to eliminate data silos is cognitive computing. Cognitive systems can gather, integrate, and analyze both structured and unstructured data and provide insights derived from these efforts available across the enterprise. Reisig adds, “The key to overcoming silos and gaining a competitive data-driven advantage is optimizing the flow of product data across value streams horizontally through systems, domains and departments, to and from your physical assets, to create value. These are the keys to enable the digital thread and eliminate data silos.” When looking for a solution to eliminate data silos, he recommends solutions that incorporate the following characteristics:

Open — “All systems … must be accessible via open, published APIs.”

Flexible — “Only deploy systems that are open, with flexible and dynamic data models. Technology, data, connectivity and artificial intelligence will continue to accelerate at exponential (and soon double-exponential) rates, which will drive profound changes in business operation. Open and flexible architectures are already causing domains to be supplanted by technology. If you want to see silos dissolve, build fluid digital threads and digital twins on flexible architectures and data schemas.”

Upgradeable — “The ability to continuously customize and upgrade is critical to staying current with new technologies and providing the flexibility to connect to one system one day, and another the next, thus providing a fluid digital thread that is responsive to the business.”

Connected to the right data — “To eliminate silos, you first have to liberate your data so it’s available to anyone in the organization at the level of granularity required. You achieve this democratization of data by leveraging common data standards for the right data — the master data. By governing the data flow across the digital thread, you break down the silos and gain invaluable fact-based insights.”

Built with cross-functional teams — “The demands of digital business are motivating some forward-thinking organizations to transition to cross-functional teams that … are dissolving silos.”

Concluding thoughts

Forslund concludes, “The only way to break down silos successfully is to enact data consolidation while also building in processes that will prevent silos in the future.” Unfortunately, past generations of business leaders have subscribed to the belief that knowledge is power and few leaders willingly give up power. To overcome this tendency, enterprises will require an upgrade to both technology and culture. As Forslund explains, “To successfully break down data silos and move towards a ‘culture of consolidation,’ it is critical to work with change management and make sure you have the right technical approach and platform. Consolidation won’t happen overnight. Patience, processes and adherence to the plan will bring the results you want and will go a long way to help your organization avoid the chaos and increased risk of having isolated data silos.” Change is never easy; but, the age of big data makes change an imperative.

Footnotes
[1] Laurie Sullivan, “What To Do With All That Data?” MediaPost, 14 March 2012.
[2] Justin Stoltzfus, “Big Data Silos: What They Are and How to Deal With Them,” Technopedia, 30 January 2019.
[3] Fredrik Forslund, “How to banish silos, consolidate data and avoid errors in the process,” Information Management, 31 January 2019.
[4] Geoff Tudor, “The Power of Data Is Stuck In Silos,” insideBIGDATA, 11 January 2019.
[5] Deloitte, “Digital Business Dissolves Silos,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 October 2017.
[6] Mark Reisig, “Dissolving silos with a digital thread,” Smart Industry, 9 January 2019.