Idea in Brief

The Challenge

Innovation initiatives, globalization, and digitalization increasingly require people to collaborate across functional and national boundaries. But breaking down silos remains frustratingly difficult.

The Cause

Employees don’t know how to identify expertise outside their own work domains and struggle to understand the perspectives of colleagues who think very differently from them.

The Solution

Leaders can help employees connect with and relate to people across organizational divides by doing four things: developing and deploying “cultural brokers,” who help groups overcome differences; encouraging and training workers to ask the right questions; getting people to see things through others’ eyes; and broadening everyone’s vision of networks of expertise inside and outside the company.

Though most executives recognize the importance of breaking down silos to help people collaborate across boundaries, they struggle to make it happen. That’s understandable: It is devilishly difficult. Think about your own relationships at work—the people you report to and those who report to you, for starters. Now consider the people in other functions, units, or geographies whose work touches yours in some way. Which relationships get prioritized in your day-to-day job?

A version of this article appeared in the May–June 2019 issue (pp.130–139) of Harvard Business Review.