DEFINITION: a knowledge silo is a group of skills (typically 20 – 100) that a person needs to learn in order to work independently at that job and be sufficiently consistent with the standard set by the role’s expert.  A silo can consist of technical expertise, tools, processes, products, standards, customers, and physical locations related to doing a job.

In my previous posts in this series, I explained how knowledge transfer tools are helping leaders drive through the storm of change by clarifying the big picture of a change strategy—right down to the worker level of the engineer, the lab assistant, the receptionist. Here, we’ll look at another knowledge transfer tool that change managers need in their toolkit:

A major European manufacturer planned to build an oil rig as part of the company’s new strategy. This project was the first of its kind for the manufacturer, and many more oil rigs were planned for construction to follow. The company had a clear strategy and solid reasoning for why they needed to be building oil rigs—but no one on their team had actually ever built one before. My company was brought in to help this client identify and mitigate its talent risks, because it is a recipe for failure when leadership asks a workforce to make a change without clarifying employees’ new roles, setting clear standards for what new behaviors are expected, and providing a way for employees to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to make the change.

Expose Knowledge Silos of Critical Expertise & Skills Needed by a Team to Make a Change

Good change management needs to identify the expertise, skills, and best practices that are needed by employees to perform their jobs in the new, right way. At The Steve Trautman Co. we call these “knowledge silos.” A silo can consist of technical expertise, tools, processes, products, standards, customers, and physical locations related to doing a job. Risk in each knowledge silo—meaning, shortages of how-to knowledge and skills, or the wrong standards of application—needs to be assessed and mitigated or a change will fail. We’ve looked around (diligently) and we’ve yet to find a better framework to assess this risk than our Knowledge Silo Matrix.

Complete a Knowledge Silo Matrix (KSM)

The Knowledge Silo Matrix is a framework that provides managers with straightforward answers to a few crucial questions which, if left unclear, will derail change:

  • “What really is the DAILY WORK of a given team or group, including the technical and professional skills needed on the job?”
  • “How will that be DIFFERENT after the organizational change?”
  • “WHO knows how to do this work the new, right way and will become the standard bearer to others for a given skill?”
  • “What CONFLICTS might exist if people who were doing the same job in different groups might now have to work together?”
  • “Which workers need to LEARN critical skills and knowledge in order to be able do their job this new way?”

The KSM is a simple tool that change managers can use to identify team risks and clarify roles in a change. The framework charts the technical and professional expertise of workers against a job role’s necessary knowledge areas. The KSM inventories—through a simple Q&A process with managers and peers—the knowledge silos that exist within any working team (typically about 5 -12 employees per KSM), and shows the level of employee expertise in each knowledge silo (see the color-coded key for Figure 1). Key roles in a change are clarified within the framework: for each silo, the person who is to be the standard bearer for the new way—the mentor to others—is designated, as are the apprentice coworkers. A team should typically have one mentor/standard to follow per group of related skills (silo). The only time it is okay to have multiple mentors (purples) in a silo is if you are confident the multiple mentors are all working consistent with the same standard. [For more info, see our free demo with instructions for completing your own KSM.]


Prioritize Your Risks

Looking at the simple completed grid, risks and priorities can be assessed.

Completing the KSM shows where your risk to successful change at the worker level lies. For example, if you ask a team to change but only give vague platitudes about what change is needed (i.e. “be more innovative”), instead of clearly defining what work needs to meet the new standard—you have risk. Likewise, if you ask workers to conform to a new standard but don’t provide them access to the needed knowledge and skills to meet that standard (i.e. a designated mentor for on-the-job training, certification programs)—you have risk. Similarly, if you expect one expert to mentor an entire team in almost every knowledge area of a job—you have risk (of burnout). And if you ask a team to change but have not or cannot define the new “right way” of doing things (i.e. if you do not have an expert or best practice to follow)—you have a very big risk that your change will fail due to unclear expectations.

My team used the KSM with our European manufacturing client as the first step in mitigating risks to their strategy implementation and the building of the oil rig, and the tool proved pivotal in turning around what had become a messy and stalled change. By clarifying roles and expectations and identifying critical priorities, the KSM is the first step to eliminating most of the risk and randomness associated with organizational change initiatives.

SUMMARY: To more successfully manage change in your organization, complete a Knowledge Silo Matrix for your team. This tool will expose silos of critical information and skills that will derail your change if left unaddressed and will clarify employee roles and expectations for the road ahead.

COMING NEXT—PART 4: How to create and act on a plan for growing the skills needed by your frontline workers to make the change, and management tools for bringing accountability to your change effort.