KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Online communities: silo breakers or silo makers?

with 8 comments

Jennifer Lentfer has compiled an excellent resource – a list of over 80 development related online communities over on her site How Matters.

When she tweeted it, this led to an interesting exchange between her and @cynan_sez about whether having so many communities is a good thing, and whether this isn’t just creating more silos.

This relates well to something I’ve been meaning to write for a while about whether online communities help break down knowledge silos or are they just creating new ones. As usual the answer is a bit of both.


Most large aid organizations are divided by function, organizational unit and geographic location. The hierarchical structures make it very difficult for information to flow around the organization to where it can be useful, and it can be even harder for people to connect to each other to directly share experience and help one another. Introducing online communities provides a opportunity for people to connect across these boundaries – silo busting! Making this work will require a lot more having a technological platform though since getting people who don’t know each other, and who don’t normally communicate to trust each other and start sharing in full sight of others is a challenging (if rewarding) task.

But you don’t usually make a community of all of your staff (Yammer notwithstanding). Most communities form around topics or themes and sometimes also geography. This way a group is of a manageable size and has enough of a common interest or purpose for collaboration to make sense. But at the same time the communities are then a sort of subject matter silo, since only those with expertise or interest in a topic will join. Some communities are selective about who can join – this is good to ensure quality and relevance of the exchange – but is negative in the sense  that you are less likely to get fresh perspectives from people from other disciplines or experiences.

Of course a problem with internal communities is that your organization is also a silo. Often (usually?) the best expertise on a topic is outside your organization.  But getting people to be willing to interact with each other and collaborate across organizational boundaries is harder then getting them to do it behind the firewall. Worthwhile if you can get it going, but harder to start, and perhaps a little less frank. Again communities form around topics or themes (or in community jargon “domains“). These are also in a sense subject matter silos since they combine people with common interests or challenges – but also are at risk of group-think if they draw on too narrow a set of experiences or viewpoints.

How communities are managed matters – how inclusive/exclusive are they, and how well do they bring in diverse voices into discussion before looking for consensus or common ground, and how well do they capture exchanges into written summaries, and how readily do they share them outside the community. Size also matters, since a community can only tap into the knowledge of its members, so if the group is too small or homogeneous then the knowledge generated and shared may be too limited. Managing communities to balance common identity while encouraging diversity to deepen the exchange is a difficult balance and will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

Another challenge with external communities is the “me too” syndrome. Yes, there might already be an online community related to my topic of interest but it’s too theoretical, too exclusive, too small, too much US influenced, not quite on the right subject focus, I could do it better, I don’t like person/organization x who is leading the community, our organization needs to be seen to be leading this topic etc., etc. So people set up their own community that meets their needs. This in part also explains the large proliferation of communities many of which in theory at least overlap.

I’ve heard people argue that we can avoid silos by using the large public social networks such as facebook or linkedin. Alas if you look at how people self-organize on these platforms they also produce multiple communities and groups that often overlap in substance but don’t connect with one another. In fact the ease of creating groups on these platforms and the closed nature of the relationships in them helps silos and closed grouping to form since you only see content from colleagues/friends i.e people you already know or groups you join and both parties have to agree to enter into a knowledge sharing relationship.

Technology platforms are themselves a kind of silo since they make it harder for people to span across communities if they have to learn and log into multiple systems to participate.

Human beings by nature naturally form into groups which develop group identities and which also have ways of establishing who is a member and who is not, which therefore deliberately exist to exclude others. There are also limits on how many relationships we can actively manage and how many people we can keep track of (the much discussed Dunbar’s number). So human beings naturally form relationship and collaboration silos just because of our cognitive limits.

What online communities (and also social networking) offer is the possibility to build transversal silos i.e. ones that cross traditional barriers to communication and collaboration such as geography or heirarchy.  These are based on affinity and common purpose rather than superimposed structures. Particularly important is that as an individual you can be a member of several different communities (a knowledge manager, an aid worker, an englishman, a  UN staffer, a father, a former statistician etc.).  People who span multiple different communities play a key role in avoiding silo thinking by  transferring knowledge from one community to another, which can as important for generating new knowledge than the interactions between those at the core of the community.

Making different communities findable can also help reduce the risks of duplication and disconnection – so efforts like Jennifer’s list play an important role in making it possible for people to find communities and connect them together – if they choose to do so. If communities (and their content) are more visible to each other and to potential members then it’s more likely they will collaborate, and also more likely that people will gravitate to those communities that really generate value – with the best communities thriving and the less valuable ones disappearing, through competition and natural selection (yes I had to bring in evolution somewhere).

In conclusion, communities (and the fact that there are so many of them) are in a sense silos, and this reflects human nature and the need to participate in groups which are defined both by inclusion and exclusion. But communities are a much better type of silo than traditional business or societally constructed silos because they span a broader range of people and locations. The online aspect in particular is key in spanning geographic barriers and allowing people to find each other and interact across large distances. Good community management can help make them more open, or at least porous to outside ideas and participants. Making communities visible can help foster collaboration and competition such that the best communities (those that generate value and share knowledge) thrive.



Written by Ian Thorpe

March 29, 2011 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. There is lots of room here for some actual empirical research.

    In 2006 I did an online survey of members of the MandE NEWS email list, to find out what other email lists they belonged to (from a list of about 30 I knew about).

    You can find a brief online summary of the survey results here plus a network diagram showing overlaps in membership of the 30 groups (NB: amongst those who were members of the MandE NEWS email list). The raw survey data can be found here.

    If anyone else is interested in doing a similar analysis of current relationships between online communities I would be happy to offer comments on any plans, especially re the use of social network analysis software tools. I have listed some of those I use here



    March 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    • Rick – thanks for your comment, and for sharing your analysis which illustrates very well the multiplicity of lists even within a single area (M&E) as well as the degree of connectedness (which is often not very much) between them.

      I agree there is lots of scope for research here – I’d love to know more about how these interrelations work in practice, and how well people actually contribute across communities, although I didn’t find much written on this. It would also be interesting to see how much real dialogue and cross sharing there is between different domains e.g. how many members of M&E groups also participate in sectoral groups say on Water, Health or Economic Development and how much intellectual exchange there is between them.

      I’m not a researcher myself (I’m working on fostering and supporting our communities plus a range of other KM activities – which is ore than a full time job) – but I can see some possibilities to do this kind of analysis at least with our own internal communities to see how siloed or not they are – in this case they would all be in different subject domains so you might expect the cross exchange to be lower – but from what I can see (without a thorough analysis) there seems to be more common membership that in your lists – but this might be because the participants are new to communities and so join several to see what is happening and how they relate to them.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm

  2. Great post. Organizations have the silos they deserve. I wonder how many communities on “Breaking down the silo communities” exist


    Gerald Meinert

    March 29, 2011 at 4:13 pm

  3. […] Grabs Online communities: silo breakers or silo makers?Disaster and Debt: India's Dalit community fights back – videoFrom Inventions to Ventures: NCIIA’s […]

  4. […] Most people  at some point get tired of searching for new places and stick to a certain  silo: “Human beings by nature naturally form into groups which develop group identities and which […]

  5. Thanks for the stimulation, again, Ian.

    I am not sure that communities are “better” silos, so much as different. I think they are really useful – and that’s why I take part in them – mainly because they do cut a different swathe through the population at large. And, as you say, because they are electronic they break the geogrphcial boundary (while, of course, erecting their own boundaries of those-who-don’t-mind-typing-to-communicate).

    What is vital is to have people like yourself who dip into the streams of many different communities and (as hunter-gatherer) bring back nuggets from one community to share with another. At least poaching becomes a good thing, in this role!

    Mark Hereward

    March 31, 2011 at 3:46 am

  6. […] key component of effective communities is diversity, otherwise they risk becoming knowledge silos. What I mean by this is diversity of opinion, philosophy, life experience, professional discipline, […]

  7. […] key component of effective communities is diversity, otherwise they risk becoming knowledge silos. What I mean by this is diversity of opinion, philosophy, life experience, professional discipline, […]

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