Ending Silos in Professional Firms
  • Managing people

Ending Silos in Professional Firms

Heidi K. Gardner’s ‘Smart Collaboration’ reviewed by IEDP


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Top fee-earning lawyers, renowned engineers or architects, the people at the top of their professions, traditionally operated as self-sufficient founts of knowledge whose connection to the rest of the firm was minimal. The areas of practice covered by these experts and their teams were defined around narrow areas of specialized knowledge, and the firm took second place to engaging with peers in their professional association.

This may once have worked, but the sheer complexity of the problems faced by clients today demand that specialists from across professional firms have had to learn to collaborate to deliver multifaceted solutions. They have had to find ways to integrate their knowledge and skill sets and work together under the leadership of what Heidi Gardner describes as a ‘ringmaster’.

In this book, Gardner, a fellow of Harvard Law School, and Research Fellow at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, explains how interdisciplinary ways of working have been successfully introduced and silos broken down in over a dozen professional firms she has researched. Success not easily achieved in firms that have often grown so fast their members, spread globally, hardly know each other, and where the old independent ways of working were deeply ingrained.

Breaking down silos is widely recognized as an essential prerequisite to building open innovative organizations. For professional firms, it serves the added need to meet complex demands from clients that can require integrated technological, financial, regulatory, and environmental solutions.

This book deals with very clever people. Typically people used to taking independent action, not often used to deferring to others, nor in sharing their knowledge to facilitate efficient collaboration. Essentially, if collaboration can be made to work with these ‘difficult’ people, in professional firms, then there is absolutely no reason collaboration cannot be instituted elsewhere. Gardner’s insights offer valuable guidance for any knowledge-based organization that needs to bring teams to people together to innovate, create, and implement complex business solutions.

Based on over a decade of research and a mass of data (e.g. timesheets, personnel records, financial reports), the book opens by proving the case for collaboration. It points both to bottom-line benefits, ways in which organizations can generate more business or move to higher-margin work, and to the people benefits, so important in attracting, developing and retaining talent.

Gardner looks in detail at the roles in a typical firm from the seasoned collaborator to the solo specialist contributor. She looks at how team leaders can encourage collaboration and at how to square the conflicting roles of manager and producer. Lastly, she introduces the ringmaster – aka cat herder – who must run the collaborative show.

She also offers practical advice on issues such as creating the right compensation systems, knowledge sharing and collaborative technology platforms. Finally, she gives eleven reasons why clients care about collaboration, from accessing multiple experts and gaining global reach to helping them understand their businesses more deeply.

Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, Heidi K. Gardner, published by Harvard Business Review Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1-63369-110-0

The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.

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