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Knowledge Silos are Holding Back Your Engineering Team — Here’s How to Break Them Down

Hillary Nussbaum

By: Hillary Nussbaum
February 03, 2022

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Knowledge silos are more than just a frustration or an inconvenience — they’re a serious threat to productivity. Yet with a few tweaks to team processes, and a commitment to intentional communication, engineering leaders can break down existing knowledge silos, and make it less likely that new ones will form.  

What are Knowledge Silos? 

Knowledge silos are individuals or groups in possession of information that is not readily accessible to the rest of an organization. Sometimes knowledge silos are formed by the intentional withholding of information — an individual or team wants to be the go-to source for answers on a certain topic — but often they’re the result of workflows that fail to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing. Generally, “knowledge silo” is not used to describe situations where the information in question is privileged or confidential, but rather, situations where sharing information would enable team members to work more efficiently or effectively. 

What Do you Stand to Gain from Knowledge Sharing? 

When engineers lack access to key information, they might end up spending time devising a new solution to a problem that has already been solved elsewhere in the codebase. Or, they may be forced to make assumptions, some of which will be incorrect, about how their work fits into the broader context of a feature or roadmap. When your team is solving the same problems over and over, or acting on incorrect assumptions, they’ll be less efficient, more frustrated, and more likely to perform unnecessary rework. In the more extreme cases, when knowledge only resides with one person on a team, that person’s absence can bring work to a standstill. 

At Code Climate, an initiative to promote intentional knowledge sharing, including logging key decisions and documenting new tracks of work, helped boost throughput almost 70%. A broader study, GitHub’s 2021 State of the Octoverse, found that specific knowledge-sharing practices like creating and maintaining up-to-date, quality documentation, can increase developer productivity by 50%. 

How Can you Break Down Knowledge Silos on Your Engineering Team? 

Knowledge silos are a natural and expected part of any evolving organization, particularly as it scales, but there are process-level measures leaders can take to actively encourage knowledge sharing. 

  • Documentation – Though writing code may get all the glory, writing documentation is critical to the success of engineering projects. Documentation allows teams to share context and to align on everything from best practices to project specifications. When documentation isn’t written or maintained, information is harder to access. Engineers not only need to know who to ask about a particular feature or project, they also have to feel comfortable reaching out with their question. 
  • Pair Programming – Knowledge exchange is one of the most well-known benefits of pair programming. When two developers are working on the same piece of code, they’ll exchange context and perspectives to arrive at a shared solution. With pair programming, more junior team members will have the opportunity to ask questions; more senior team members can share wisdom culled from their own experiences; and team members with different specialties and skill sets can learn from each other. 
  • Code Review – While different organizations employ different best practices for Code Review, it is a fundamental opportunity for engineers to share knowledge and offer feedback to help improve each other’s work. If you’re using a Software Engineering Intelligence (SEI) platform like Velocity, metrics like Review Speed and Review Influence can help provide a sense of whether engineers are prioritizing Code Reviews, whether reviewers are leaving impactful feedback or rubber-stamping code, and if PRs are evenly distributed among reviewers. If one reviewer is disproportionately commenting on certain kinds of PRs, or PRs associated with a particular area of the codebase, that could indicate a potential knowledge silo. 
  • Draft PRs – Designed to encourage collaboration, Draft PRs enable developers to signal to potential reviewers that code is a work in progress while still opening the door for feedback. This allows developers to gain perspective from teammates at the earliest stages while ensuring that work in progress code does not get merged or prematurely factor into any review metrics being tracked in an SEI platform.

By implementing processes that require communication and collaboration, teams can actively encourage information sharing, rather than leaving it up to chance. With more information exchanged, existing knowledge silos will break down, fewer new ones will form, and overall team productivity will get a boost. 

To learn more about using an SEI platform to spot blockers like knowledge silos and improve engineering processes, speak to an Engineering Data Specialist

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