Out of the box and into the boot camp

January 22, 2016 Science

Gillian Tett writes about the “silo effect” – what others have described as tunnel vision or a problem of fragmented worldviews – as though it were largely the product of an excess of specialization in advanced industrial societies. In fact, a preoccupation with this phenomenon has a very long pedigree. The parable of the blind men mistaking parts of the elephant for the whole is attributed to the Buddha and is known to the Jain, Hindu and Sufi traditions. Even in the hunter gatherer societies Tett knows well, specialization is omnipresent: not everyone hunts, and not everyone makes tools. And when it is omnipresent, someone is going to worry, with reason, that the rest of society is being forced to bend to a partial worldview – of the hunters, say, or of the toolmakers.

Specialization is to some degree inevitable in any society, and trying to resist or deny it can be a source of confusion. The introspective-centipede effect  may not have captured the imagination of the mystics to the same extent as the blind-men-and-the-elephant effect, but everyone knows that sometimes it is best to let the parts of the body unreflectively do their job, and the same often goes for the members of a team. How, then, can we decide when specialization is getting out of hand? How much specialization is too much?

Tett’s take on this problem owes a lot to her training as an anthropologist, which she has put to brilliant use both in her work as a journalist for the Financial Times and in her previous book Fool’s Gold (TLS, April 23, 2010) which explained the recent financial crisis from the point of view of the credit derivatives team at J. P. Morgan. She writes with great verve and exceptional clarity. The core of her new book is a series of case studies in which groups of professionals have either succeeded or failed to overcome the silo effect. Her accounts tend to involve narratives in which a single far-sighted individual struggles, successfully or unsuccessfully, according to the example chosen, against colleagues who are very good at their jobs but not very good at seeing beyond them. Thus Howard Stringer was appointed CEO of Sony in 2005 by those on the board who saw the need for a radically new vision at this once-great company, but he stepped down in 2012, frustrated by his inability to break down the barriers between the rival product divisions. As one of his allies, Rob Wiesenthal, told reporters, “I have 35 different Sony devices at home. I have 35 battery chargers. That’s all you need to know”.

By contrast Brett Goldstein, a young start-up entrepreneur, was inspired by the events of 9/11 to join the Chicago police force where he pioneered the use of data-driven methods to manage the deployment of a task force that helped significantly to reduce homicide rates in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods. Other case studies recount similarly daunting challenges. Only Tett’s Facebook case study is not couched in terms of a struggle (“nobody inside the company felt complacent”), though this, too, has its hero, a programmer called Jocelyn Goldfein who is challenged by the Facebook environment to look beyond the limitations of her geeky training, beginning with the famous “Boot camps” for new recruits regardless of previous rank or experience that open her up to interactions with colleagues right across the company.

Tett’s writing is excellent and every case study is gripping, though her quest for a good story sometimes leads her to some tunnel vision of her own. For example, her account of the blindness of the economics profession to the looming financial crisis in 2007–2008 makes some excellent points but it is significantly distorted by her narrative frame. In Tett’s telling, a lone Cassandra – Paul Tucker, the Bank of England insider who became Deputy Governor – tried repeatedly to draw his colleagues’ attention to the dangers posed by certain obscure financial instruments, such as Collateralized Debt Obligations, and found himself frustrated by the dominance of economists who were incapable of looking beyond their narrow mathematical models at what was happening in the real world, and were thus convinced that the financial system was doing fine. Though this is not an unfair description of many economists, it is misleading in one important respect. Many did indeed foresee a crisis in the early 2000s, but they were mostly expecting a threat from quite different directions, the most common being a collapse in the US dollar as a result of global trade imbalances. A Google Scholar search turns up 243 books, articles and working papers with “global imbalances” in the title published between 2000 and 2007. The claim that the profession never anticipated the crisis is simply false. In fact, it anticipated crises too often and from too many directions for any of the many warnings to be entirely convincing, even perhaps to those who uttered them. This was not a new problem for economic forecasting: Paul Samuelson once wrote that the stock market had predicted nine of the previous five recessions. But a failure diagnosed in terms of a lone Cassandra is quite different from one involving a cacophony of rival Cassandras. So for all this books’s persuasiveness it remains to be seen whether multiple and competing silo-busting initiatives really constitute a general solution to the predicament Tett describes.

Another example of where the narrative misses something important is in Tett’s account of how Toby Cosgrove, appointed CEO of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio in 2004, managed to revolutionize standards of medical care by organizing the clinic around institutes that dealt with anatomical and medical conditions (“Urological and Kidney Institute” or “Heart and Vascular Institute”) rather than disciplinary specialities such as surgery and neurology. What Tett doesn’t mention is that nearly a century ago something very similar happened in American manufacturing industry when several large firms, such as Dupont and General Motors, were reorganized around product divisions rather than around functional departments of engineers, accountants, salespeople and so on. Visionary managers such as Alfred Sloan at GM understood that people who share a discipline need to communicate with each other, and so do people who cooperate in a team to design, make and service a product. But Sloan also understood that while both forms of communication were important, the communication among teams was urgent in a way that communication among professional disciplines was not. Only if the sales force could form the habit of rapidly communicating the concerns of customers to the designers and engineers would products respond to the exigencies of a newly prosperous and demanding American middle class.

The interesting story at Cleveland is not just about how Toby Cosgrove succeeded in silo-busting; he was a visionary but not an unprecedented one. What we are really left wanting to know is why the health care industry took nearly a century to reach the insights that Sloan and others pioneered in manufacturing in the 1920s. (Sadly, the academic profession is even further behind.) More recently, health care has been extremely slow to incorporate advances in information technology that firms elsewhere took on board two or three decades ago. So silo-busting is taking place within healthcare while happening only slowly and painfully between health care and other parts of modern life.

No one can do everything, and it would be unfair to reproach Tett with performing her narrative task too well, but we should be wary of entirely endorsing her closing paean to “six principles of anthropology” as a solution to the silo effect. Anthropology can build silos as well as undermine them. The principles are in any case rather bland and unexceptionable (“organizations need to think about pay and incentives”, “information flows matter too”), and it is hard to imagine them really helping to discriminate between necessary and dangerous specialization. Gillian Tett’s explanatory talent is admirable, as is her optimistic belief that a grounding in anthropology can help us, as Matthew Arnold wrote of Sophocles, to “see life steadily and see it whole”. But the silo effect remains, for us as for the Buddha, far easier to diagnose in retrospect than to foresee or prevent.