Break down the silos – it will be good for business!

The themes of team, collaboration and community often underpin our writings and have been the focus of our recent videos and podcasts. Why? Because we see so many organisations not operating as effectively as they could be because staff sit in their teams or ‘silos’ and don’t have the opportunity to explore how their role fits with the purpose of their team or the vision of the organisation. We would like to respectfully point out that this is not good for your business! As Helen Keller so simply put it,

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much

So why not try something different and encourage your staff to work together?

Collaborative Practice and Co-operation

Collaborative practice, and cooperation between teams helps build a sense of community and belonging in an organisation. Where there is true teamwork the output of the team is so much more valuable than the efforts of individuals, who at best work side by side and at worst work in isolation with no sense of purpose! Enabling collaboration is ultimately good for your business. Why, because when people have purpose in their job and a connection with the overall vision and mission of the organisation they also develop a sense of belonging and this contributes positively to job satisfaction.

This is all important if we wish to attract and retain quality staff, create a positive compliance culture and provide a quality student learning experience and positive student outcomes.

Organisations learning to work collaboratively need to move through 3 stages of development:

  1. Building a trusting and collaborative culture,
  2. Working together to achieve a shared mission, and
  3. Using initiative and taking risks together.

These stages of development should be supported by appropriate professional development to enable leaders to step up and to empower all staff to perform not only their current role but new roles that arise from shared projects and new initiatives.

In planning these stages, it is essential to consider the leadership capacity of the RTO leadership teams. We will briefly explore the 3 stages and some of the principles of success for leaders as they build collaborative teams.

1. Building a trusting and collaborative culture

Like many businesses, RTOs tend to operate within silos where individual teams operate independently of each other – this doesn’t encourage collaboration. It can be difficult to achieve a trusting and collaborative culture where the silo culture is entrenched. However, there is a way – the key is to stop thinking about structure and positional power and shift to a problem solving focus. In doing this the RTO manager must also acknowledge that every member of the team plays an important role in achieving RTO goals.

In practice this shift to a problem solving focus means involving staff from across the RTO in decision making and planning so that there is cross-team contribution and communication. This could involve establishing a short term multi-disciplinary project team with members from various teams across the RTO. Alternatively this can be achieved by ensuring that the practice of collaborating with a broad range of RTO teams is embedded into RTO practice.

For example, imagine an RTO is considering how to adapt to the new student focused audit approach. They decide to review and update their student recruitment and enrolment processes and are considering switching to a more user-friendly student management system. In choosing the system they shouldn’t just consult the student services team about what system is needed. They should involve all the people in the RTO who need to access the system and ask them what they need from the system. Using information gathered from the whole RTO, enables an informed choice of system to be made. Then staff from all teams across the RTO, or a multidisciplinary project team should be involved in trialling the system and providing the feedback.

This shift in operational style can be stressful for some staff who have not experienced a collaborative workplace. It is important to support staff through this change by recognising that change is stressful and giving people time and support to adapt. This will in turn, help to develop resilience and maintain effectiveness during other times of stress and change. You should also provide downtime for reflection and analysis on the old and new ways of working to reinforce the benefits of the new approach. Professional development may also be needed to enable staff to adapt to the new system. Celebrations and gatherings can also build trust and demonstrate that the RTO manager respects the contribution of all staff.

2. Working together to achieve a shared mission

Continuing with the example of the RTO changing their recruitment and enrolment processes, you can imagine that once the student management system is installed and operating successfully, that the RTO staff may be tempted to fall back into their old ways and rather than continue to work in a collaborative, multidisciplinary manner, they return to working within their silos. How could the RTO management prevent this from happening?

To reinforce the collaborative culture over time, RTO management should refocus the goals of the organisation to ensure they support cross team collaboration and the desired work ethic and culture. Teams should be encouraged to challenge past and current practices and implement changes that might enhance student learning experiences and outcomes. Opportunities to work in multidisciplinary teams should be readily available to help embed the value of collaboration into the organisational culture.

To bed these changes down, policies and processes should be revised to reflect the roles of all RTO teams in both day to day activities and for working towards achieving strategic initiatives. Leadership roles, where possible should also be adjusted to accommodate people collaborating across teams where necessary. If these supportive structures are put in place it makes is difficult for individuals to return to the old ways and encourages them to continue to work in a new and collaborative manner!

In our example, the multidisciplinary team could be given ongoing responsibility for review and improvement of the new student management system. In addition, they could be given the responsibility for the broader project to review and update student recruitment and enrolment processes. Student recruitment, enrolment and support related policies should be aligned with new organisational strategies and suggestions for updates to other RTO policies put forward by this team with input from other teams across the organisation.

3. Using initiative and taking risks together

As you implement these culture-changing practices, it is important to support and encourage good communication across the organisation, confront complacency and build a collaborative learning culture by providing appropriate professional learning opportunities. This can be challenging, especially for staff who have not taken part in planning exercises or project work in the past. It is vital that all staff feel able to contribute to discussion about new ideas and that taking initiative and calculated risks will be supported, provided the proposed actions align with RTO and team goals, RTO culture and values etc. Clear communication is essential, not just on day to day matters, but also about project work and information that is central to the future of the RTO.

A regular staff email or newsletter can be used to share project updates as well as day to day information. Notice boards, both physical and virtual can also be used to show progress – for example, some RTOs use monitors on the walls to show important performance information. Regular staff and management team meetings are also important to share information and for staff to report on aspects of projects as well as day to day business, continuous improvement and quality information.

Building on our example of the multidisciplinary project to improve student recruitment and enrolment practices, an example of an initiative to enhance the student experience might be to provide student services staff with the opportunity to complete their Cert IV in Training and Assessment. This should help these staff members as they conduct the upfront assessment/ consultation with potential students, particularly when determining the student’s learning needs and training support requirements. Of course, some RTOs might refuse to provide such training to non – teaching staff because of the cost and time commitment to complete the qualification. But this is a reasonable expense if it will improve the student’s relationship with the RTO. The key to success, defined here as successfully enrolling students and supporting progress, is the seamless transition for the student from enrolment to the classroom (or online platform) where the trainer is provided with accurate and relevant information about the student’s needs from the student support staff. This information should then be used to customise the learning experience for the individual student. This interaction across teams should be maintained throughout the student’s journey to provide continued support right through to completion and graduation.

What type of leadership is required to build a collaborative culture?

To achieve a collaborative team and culture as described above in an RTO, the RTO leadership team must be prepared to share leadership responsibility and must be willing to build leadership capability. Leaders will need to learn resilience and the ability to lead flexibly in an environment where project work is changing frequently to meet the changing demands of the VET sector and a range of stakeholders.

It may be helpful to borrow a term from the school leadership literature here to describe what is needed in the RTO environment. The term ‘distributed leadership’ which can be taken quite simply to mean ‘the expansion of leadership roles ….., beyond those in formal leadership or administrative posts’ is promoted widely in school leadership literature as the way forward for engaging the school community in initiatives to improve student outcomes and build collaborative practice. Whether the leadership is formal or informal and attitudes about the distribution of authority and decision making will vary across RTOs, but what is important is the recognition of the leadership capabilities required at different levels in the organisation, how they can be used effectively to achieve the strategic objectives and how any gaps in capability can be addressed.

The RTO leadership must shift from seeing their core responsibility in positional leadership terms i.e. at the apex of organisation, to being responsible to develop leadership capability in others.

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” – Patrick Lencioni

This means in some cases relinquishing power, allowing themselves to become vulnerable and open to conflicting viewpoints and being open to shared decision making. Distributed leadership does not negate the need for that senior leadership figure, rather it requires the co –performance of leaders across the organisation.

The development of leadership capabilities at different levels of the organisation can be achieved by mentoring potential leaders and providing professional development for leaders and teams to build their capabilities.

We have been able to help lots of organisations to do this by providing coaching training. If you would like to find out more about this follow the links below to read about relevant products and services:

or please call us or contact us on

Thanks for joining us,









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2 thoughts on “Break down the silos – it will be good for your business

  1. Thank you for an interesting plain English article. Well done!

    1. Thanks Susan, we are glad it was helpful.

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