“Silos or Webs?”

Silos are familiar structures across the Midwest. Pass any farm and you will see at least one silo. They serve as holding ‘tanks’ for bulk products like grain, feed, or other items stored for periods of time. Silos are built to last…and used to keep commodities separated from others in these specialized containers.

The metaphor of a silo is also what the Midwest (and for that matter many places in the United States) seem to do with how it views the world and solutions to problems. One problem is singled out with the result of surely finding one correct solution. And to stretch this metaphor a bit, one solution is the key which was developed and stored over a long period of time, even though the landscape and the market has changed.

This seems to be the case with the Midwest thus far and responding to globalization. One solution, which was good ten years ago, is still good today. The solution just has to be dusted off and updated a bit to give us the answer we are looking for to solve our economic, social, or regional dilemmas.

The problem is that the world is a web and solutions must be web based. Current circumstances are not the end result of one problem, but the result of a combination of interrelated, interwoven scenarios and decisions that make one solution–a silo–inadequate for answering the complexity of the moment.

My background is in ancient history and archaeology. My discipline reminds me that the best textbooks on the subject do not point to one solution as the answer to a problem. My discipline reminds me that complexity of decisions and interrelationships of choices or circumstances LEAD to a situation, but that the circumstance we record historically never came from one dilemma. History reminds me that what we pinpoint as a historical event actually developed through a web of both known and unknown factors. And to solve the situation, one must attempt to see the situation and solution not from the metaphor of a silo, but a web. That is why I often recommend that my students read the important work by systems thinker, Peter Senge, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” (Doubleday, 1994)

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It’s a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’,” says Senge (A very good synopsis of his book may be found at the Audubon Area Community Services, KY, website). “Systems thinking involves a huge shift in idealism, perspective, and tools for managing an enterprise. The “systemic perspective” is one of wholeness—a radical departure from our Western tendency to break things apart, to fragmentation (or as I have noted, silo mentality).”

If the Midwest Mindset is to change and if the Midwest regionally is to engage globalization effectively, it must collectively begin to find solutions through a web of discussion and web of collaboration. No single event caused today’s woes, and no single solution will solve them. It is by intentionally changing our mindset from silo to web thinking that the Midwest can engage the complexity of globalization. We have to remember as Senge notes, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.”

If you personally, as a civic leader, or as a company want to begin to help your community and the Midwest region, start by reading the book I recommend to my students, “The Fifth Discipline.” Identify civic leadership and bring together a range of citizenry to study the book, have discussions, and maybe even invite Senge to join you in this challenging task of entering productively the global economy and reviving the Midwest.

I notice as I drive across the open landscape of the Midwest that many silos, so essential for a former time in our region, are beginning to crumble and fall. Many of them are overgrown with vines, or stand next to barns that are imploding because the road moved, the farm is gone, or the structure no longer supported the changes to agriculture. Silo thinking in the Midwest will implode this region and we will be left standing as an empty edifice to a bygone day because the road of globalization has changed the way things are. It doesn’t have to come to this….but we have to move to web thinking to stand a chance.

December 29, 2011