Silo-Busting in the Era of Digital Business

Nancy Johnson Sanquist's picture

Mike “Schrep” Schroepfer is the CTO of Facebook, a company immersed in digital business, or the blur between the physical and the virtual worlds. Facebook has journeyed beyond social apps, to create technologies for artificial intelligence, drones and virtual reality.  Besides the fact he is obviously a brilliant IT guy, he understands something that is critical to being competitive in today’s digital business world, and that is the importance of physical space to productivity and innovation.  I do not know what role he played in the design of the new Facebook campus, but thanks to Gillian Tett’s (one of my favorite columnists and US managing editor for the Financial Times) new book, The Silo Effect, he used architectural design in the fight to ensure that their dedicated, focused project teams did not turn into competitive silos subdivided in separate buildings. They inherited enclosed offices and cubicles when they took over the Sun Microsystems campus in Menlo Park.  Mike described this environment as one with ‘cattle pens’.

What Mike did with that campus was to work with architects to rip out walls, expose pipes, and put people in an open plan environment;  connect the separate buildings horizontally on the third floors of each building to ensure that the engineers had as few barriers as possible to move around the spaces.  He believed in the concept of serendipity. He is quoted in Tett’s book as saying “There is all this research out there which shows that if you can keep people moving and colliding with each other, you get more interaction.”  And with more interaction, you hope to also increase innovation and creativity between the different type of engineers working on disparate solutions to different type of problems throughout the company.  They turned the space between the buildings into what they called “rambling zones” to encourage people to work in the outdoors in the glorious California environment.

I have no knowledge as to the involvement of Schrep in the new Gehry building, but my guess is that he was one of the chief interfaces with the architect. As Tett revealed, “The concept of using architecture as a tool to promote employee collisions and collaborations was also wide-spread, both inside and outside the technology world”.  She points out 3M who discovered that mixing different specialists in one building increased collaboration and innovation in their research laboratories.

So you may be asking, why is the story about Mike Schroepfer so important to me?  It is exactly what is necessary for digital business and the digital workplace to be successful, as Gartner has been focusing on for the last couple of years.  It is not only IT and HR getting together to deliver solutions which make employees more competitive, more engaged, more likely to stay with that company for a longer time.  It means that IT and HR need to collaborate with the real estate and facility management groups who understand the world of physical space and what design thinking can do break the silos and cross pollenate ideas for increased productivity[1].  Mike Schroepfer understands this perfectly and used architecture as one of the means for silo-busting at Facebook.

This is why the “I” in IWMS is so important to organizations around the world for all of the organizations which have implemented Trimble’s real estate and workplace solutions.  IT can utilize the Integrated Workplace Management System for IT asset management, move request coordination and for a floor plan IT layer.  HR can use it for employee locations organizational demographics, remote worker/location data and on-boarding.  Security accesses it for employee locations, occupancy details, and business continuity can make use of it for move scenarios, “what-if planning simulations and floor plan, occupancy and exit location details.  IWMS thus becomes the command post for a new type of collaboration which can transform HR, IT, real estate and facility management “from support functions to facilitators” of a more productive and cost-effective workplace.[2]

Successful businesses are very different in their cultures and their management practices, but I prefer Tett’s story of Facebook than the one we cannot escape this week in  the New York Times week about the draconian work culture of Amazon[3].  It is interesting to note that Gillian Tett has a PhD from the University of Cambridge in social (or cultural) anthropology and in her coverage of global economics and business brings an entirely unique viewpoint to the world of work.  Mike Schroepfer did not think that he would care about cultural anthropology, but said, “ I never used to think about this social stuff.  It didn’t seem that important.  But then when I came to Facebook, I realized how much it matters.  That’s a real change.  And now I can’t stop thinking about it.”  Gillian Tett’s  book comes out the end of this month and I suggest we all take it to the beach for a good read these last days of summer.[4]


[1] For more about serendipity and collaboration see the Wall Street Journal article “The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace” April 30, 2013:

[2] Waber, Ben, Jennifer Magnofi and Greg Lindsay, “Workspaces that Move People,” Harvard Business Review, October, 2014, p.72.

[3] It started with a lengthy cover story on the front page of the NY Times, found its way into a number of articles of work cultures during this week followed in today’s NYT by an editorial by Joe Nocera, “The Amazon Way” who asked if this was “a culture one of a kind, or a sign of the workplace of the future?”  Read them and you make up your own mind.

[4] This was taken from an article in the FT by Gillian Tett entitled “Go mingle, have fun”, August 22/23 2015.



Google+ Comments