How to Spot and Eliminate Data Silos

11 Min Read
Legacy data silos are becoming increasingly bad for businesses of all shapes and sizes, but proceed cautiously as you begin to dismantle them.

Data is the new currency in our increasingly online world. Both businesses and individuals are coming to a better understanding of the value of data. Many are taking steps to simultaneously lock it away from prying eyes through hardened security but also have it readily available when needed.

Those two goals may at first seem to be at odds with one another, but that’s not true anymore. New software and hardware solutions make it increasingly simple to identify an authorized individual. This can be done by username and password but also by cell number, face scan, and thumbprint.

These improvements in user identification are running in parallel with a growing need for enhanced customer service. In our digital age, people are far less likely to cooperate with outdated processes. Nor should they be asked to do so.

What exactly is a “data silo?”

A data silo is best defined as a valuable set of data collected by one department within an organization but not shared with others. Very rarely do these silos develop out of a need for extreme security and protection. Far more often, data silos are a legacy of outdated systems that simply kept running untended.

Why are data silos such a bad thing?

Sometimes, a data silo can be the intentional result of an individual or group of people misguidedly attempting to become “indispensable.” They see giving unrestricted access to their resources as a threat of some kind. Whether the underlying cause is something that just organically developed over time or slightly more nefarious, data silos breed mistrust. They hamper overall efficiency and contribute to a lack of transparency.

Data silos keep people in the dark. Management is left to operate by hunches as no one has a complete picture of how the company is doing. This in turn leads to poor decision-making which does nothing to alleviate any trust issues. Collaboration falters when departments engage in turf wars. Customers have a degraded experience with your company. They must frequently share identical information with multiple representatives.

Data silos are known for being only as accurate as of the person or persons left in charge. Since only a privileged few can manipulate the data, there is no opportunity for someone in another area to spot a mistake or make a correction. Housing multiple data sets — many of which contain similar or identical information — adds to the operating costs of any business. Siloed data is not useless, but neither is it optimized.

How do I find these silos?

The trick to spotting data silos is as simple (and as difficult) as paying attention to internal processes with “new eyes.” In many settings, data silos have become part of the everyday routine, as ubiquitous as office furniture. Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you seek to uncover information logjams.

  • Are there any processes that stall out for lack of access to information?
  • Where and when are employees running into duplicate or conflicting information?
  • Are there routines in place that require entering the same information more than once?
  • Have we ever had to stop what we were doing to call someone who was out of the office?

Asking these types of questions can help you and other employees push past underlying assumptions. Those assumptions have helped give rise to data silos in the first place.

Another good tactic your teams can use is to pay attention to those times when they experience excellence in information availability balanced by security. Seeing how other companies keep their data sets talking to each other in real-time can call attention to areas where your business might be lacking.

What can I do to eliminate data silos?

The simple answer to eliminating data silos is getting your systems all talking to one another seamlessly. That’s most often easier said than done. However, hang onto that metanarrative as your people encounter snags. In most cases, the overall goal will be to eliminate data hoarding in outlying areas of your company and bring them all together under one roof.

Implement an all-in-one-place data management tool.

Some people balk at the idea of having all of their sensitive data housed in one location. However, this is a holdover from the days when the crash of one hard drive could take down a business for days if not weeks. Centralized servers — both secure and reliable — make it possible to gather all of your data in one place. You can then manage levels of access with a high degree of granularity.

There are many outstanding data management tools on the market today. Listing and evaluating them would be a daunting task and is beyond the scope of this article. Not only that but patches and software upgrades are being released every week.

The trick is to commit to a period of evaluation — six weeks, six months, whatever — and learn as much as you can from vendors and other resources as you can. At some point, you’ll want to pull the trigger. Don’t become paralyzed by promises of “new and exciting” products that may or may not be released on time.

Use applications with built-in integration mechanisms.

As your company moves forward with tearing down its data silos, be sure that any new investment in hardware or software solutions allows for the future integration of other methodologies. Any system that insists on nothing other than a single, proprietary solution is probably not a good bet. You won’t want to find yourself beholden to any single architecture or vendor. This is a set-up for being held hostage somewhere further on up the road.

As you look for applications and systems that promise to connect your silos and centralize your data sets, be cautious. Make sure to ask about the availability of application programming interfaces (APIs) that readily permit the use of other solutions. Those solutions can be proprietary to another company or open-source.

Reward collaboration.

Many organizations have employees who view access to certain information as a privilege unique to their position.

One telltale sign of someone who has a vested interest in maintaining data silos is the phrase “my data.” This phrase most often rolls off the tongue when the time is at hand to integrate systems. This type of thinking is certainly to be discouraged.

However, you’ll likely make more headway in your organization by publicly praising examples of collaboration and cooperation with regard to integrating data systems.

When teams that don’t normally work together demonstrate initiative in moving the company forward through breaking down data silos, be sure to call attention to these efforts by rewarding them. Rewards can include financial incentives and perhaps even promotions. The key is to make sure that everyone “gets it” that your company is actively moving away from information hoarding by treating it as a relic from another age.

When it comes to outdated information, purge, purge, purge.

Your integrated solution will only ever be as good as the data that gets uploaded to it. With that in mind, any effort to break down a data silo must have as its first step the systematic cleaning of the data housed within. While you may be able to write scripts to help root out incomplete, inaccurate, or outdated information, nothing beats an experienced set of eyes for cleaning data.

You may find you have employees that are somewhat reluctant to purge data out of concern for losing records. One way to get around this objection is to have your IT department set up a “sandbox” or staging server where multiple backups are made per day. Whatever you can do to embolden your people to purge bad data, it will be worth the effort when those data records are ultimately uploaded to your new integrated software solution.

Wrapping Up

The most challenging aspect of tearing down data silos is most often human, not technological. As you begin to tackle this task, you are almost certain to run into one or more employees who are reticent. This is to be expected. Many people get nervous in the face of systems changing.

To the extent that this is completely true, assure your staff that no one’s job is on the line. In fact, you’re hoping that the elimination of data silos will ultimately lead to improved productivity, a better customer experience overall, and perhaps even more jobs.

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Becca Williams is a writer, editor, and small business owner. She writes a column for and many more major media outlets.