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  • Writer's pictureRob van Hout

From Silos to Systems: Navigating a World That Continues to Grow in Complexity

Updated: Feb 12

MSD Hub editor's note (Michael Field, Senior Systems Specialist, Vikāra Institute):


This blog digs into an important topic for systems thinkers. As the blogs points out people are often more comfortable associating with like-minded folks, which can end up in siloed-thinking. For complex challenges, it is essential to focus on the how various forces and factors push and pull against each other in any given context, which in practice means that specialized expertise taken in isolation is not an effective way to address complex challenges. At the same time, expertise is important, but to address complex challenges it is the exchanges of different expertise that allows a context-specific pathway to emerge. The blog provides an interesting case exploring how Helvetas intentionally creates multi-discipline teams.

 

While our daily collaboration often centers on our expertise, breaking free from the silo mentality becomes crucial when tackling intricate challenges. Join us in exploring this shift as we highlight our experiences in the RECONOMY program's multi-disciplinary approach to inclusive green economic development, guided by systems thinking.


In our daily work, we often find comfort in collaborating with peers from our field of expertise. We use similar language, feel reassured by colleagues who easily understand us, and quickly bounce ideas off one another. For practical reasons, our organizations are often designed to bring experts with similar skill sets together and to form groups of teams that focus on specific fields of expertise. However, when dealing with complex or multi-faceted topics, we quickly realize that we need to work across departments and combine our knowledge and experiences. Unfortunately, this is more easily said than done, because we still have a tendency to work in silos. We tend to have our weekly or monthly team meetings with a small group of similar experts only, and our work plans and budgets are not necessarily aligned with those of other departments or teams.


The silo mentality refers to a mindset in which various departments or teams within an organization operate in isolation, leading to limited opportunities for effective communication and collaboration within the group. This term highlights the barriers that can emerge within an organization, hindering the smooth exchange of information and ideas among different departments.


The tendency to work in silos is a phenomenon that does not only affect the effectiveness of processes within organizations, but also across organizations. If for instance, various organizations may manage to bring together a group of experts from one discipline, but it is difficult to turn this into a multi-disciplinary working group or platform. Among private sector development practitioners, we frequently participate in exchanges between similar development and consultancy organizations, but if you want to discuss a complex issue then it becomes challenging to bring in new voices.


Take, for example, the concept of an inclusive green economy. Private sector development experts can share knowledge and have regular exchanges on how to make our interventions greener (and more inclusive), but involving or jointly tackling the issue with experts from other disciplines – for example, from environmental or climate change organizations – remains a challenge and is still rarely happening.


During the Market System Symposium in South Africa earlier this month, we learned that it is indeed valuable to have exchanges between experts from the same discipline to stay abreast of the latest developments, deepen our understanding of tools and concepts, and explore new opportunities for collaboration. At the same time, we realized that when we discuss complex problems like climate change or migration, we need to have more experts from these other disciplines present to be able to strengthen our own interventions and programs and to influence them by sharing our knowledge and experience (e.g., in systems thinking).


Building a team that breaks silos: The case of RECONOMY

In Helvetas’ programs on inclusive green economy, like the RECONOMY program in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Western Balkans, we want to ensure that staff possess multi-disciplinary knowledge. At the same time, it is not realistic to expect them to be experts in every field. Instead, the team has complementary skill sets consisting of professionals from the fields of climate change, environment, gender equality and social inclusion, and private sector development.


In addition to its own experts, a program like RECONOMY needs to develop effective partnerships and collaborations with specialized companies (e.g., in the areas of energy efficiency or the circular economy). At present, there is still a lack of green economic experts in many of our partner countries, which is often a barrier to designing and implementing innovative interventions. Fortunately, RECONOMY is a program that operates regionally, and cross-border knowledge exchange is an explicit objective of the program, enabling countries to learn from each other and to tap into intellectual resources across borders.


Systems thinking and MSD: Breaking or creating silos?

In RECONOMY and most other economic development programs, Helvetas applies a Market Systems Development (MSD) approach, which offers practical tools and concepts that are built on systems thinking. Systems thinking addresses challenges by considering them as components of a larger system rather than responding to isolated parts, outcomes or events. It comprises a collection of practices within a framework that is based on the belief that we can most effectively influence the parts of a system within the context of their relationships with each other and with other systems.


In a way, the MSD approach was developed to break free from silos thinking and move towards holistic thinking. However, the MSD approach suffers from its own silos. One example is the silo of MSD experts as opposed to the majority of other development practitioners who have never heard about the approach. Or perhaps they are hesitant to use it because they associate the MSD approach only with private sector development and not with other areas such as natural resource management or climate change. But there is no reason why it shouldn’t go beyond the private sector, since MSD and systems thinking (purposefully renamed the inclusive systems approach) build directly on concepts from the environmental sciences and provide a practical framework to work across disciplines and to manage programs that aim to deal with complex topics such as inclusive green economic development.


What is important now is that we create more opportunities to collaborate across our borders and foster more exchanges between experts and organizations from multiple disciplines. To deal with complexities, we need to invest in the interdisciplinary tools, events, platforms and partnerships to bring such a broad range of professionals together.



Author:

Rob van Hout, Senior Advisor Private Sector Development, Helvetas

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