In humans, sodium is an essential nutrient that regulates blood volume, blood pressure, osmotic equilibrium and PH, the minimum physiological requirement being 500 milligrams a day. The daily recommended intake of sodium is 2.3 grams per day. However, with most of the sodium in our diet coming from the processed foods we are so fond of, in the United States, for example, the average intake is 3.4 grams, an amount that is a factor in the 7.6 million premature deaths from hypertension worldwide. Despite its being essential for our physiological equilibrium, elemental sodium requires careful handling. It generates flammable hydrogen and caustic sodium hydroxide upon contact with water and powdered sodium may spontaneously explode in the presence of oxygen. Not the kind of element you’d imagine as being necessary for the continuation of a healthy existence.
It’s buddy from the Periodic Table, chlorine, is used in the manufacture of a wide range of popular consumer products. As a common disinfectant, elemental chlorine and chlorine-generating compounds are more familiar to us from their use in keeping swimming pools clean and sanitary. In the form of chloride ions, chlorine is necessary to all known species of life. However, like sodium, chlorine has a dark side. In Earth’s atmosphere, chlorine-containing organic molecules such as CFCs are a significant factor in ozone depletion. Sadly relevant at the centenary of the First World War, high concentrations of extremely dangerous and poisonous elemental chlorine were used on both sides as the first gaseous chemical warfare agent.
So, two essential yet, in the right circumstances, highly toxic elements. Put them together, however, and you get the altogether more friendly sodium chloride, more familiar to us as salt. Our favourite and best-known food preservative has been in use for many thousands of years with evidence pointing to the Neolithic people of the Precucuteni Culture boiling salt-laden spring water to extract the salt as far back as 6050 BC.
That’s all very interesting, I hear you think, but what the hell has it got to do with a blog that purports to concern itself with the world of work?
Consider your typical organisation. It contains discrete functions that deliver particular tactical or operational services across the business. Working individually to perform their designated tasks they might be considered as essential elements for the health of the whole. However, like the human body, organisations are in a constant state of change. Left unattended, both will atrophy and suffer irrevocable damage. Leaving our functions in their elemental state is when they are at their most unstable and damaging. These elements may become more familiar to you if I give them their generic name of silos. Silos are the source of a great deal of the toxicity in businesses. They are where the weak and fearful maintain their grip and build their fiefdoms. They are the petri dish of dysfunctional corporate culture. They’re the place where the buck never stops, where poor communication is the best communication anyone ever gets and prejudices are polished to a high sheen. Outside of businesses themselves but still in the world of business, we see the silos of the trade bodies – home of the vested interest, self-aggrandisement and the professional navel-gazer. Managers love silos. They make command and control simpler. They perpetuate hierarchy. They allow people to play Second Life with organisational life.
Businesses have been described as complex adaptive systems. The parallels with natural ecosystems are clear. Communities of living organisms in conjunction with the non-living components of their environment, interacting as a system. The creation, and maintenance of silos is antithesis to the health of the system. We might better control and examine people in small containers but anyone who has seen animals in a zoo, however beautifully designed and with whatever noble aims in mind, will know how inadequate a replacement for the symbiosis of their natural habitat it is. Humans are social animals and it is therefore against our nature to hunker down in silos. Fear of the stick and hoping for the carrot keep us in our cages. If we desire better work and working lives, for all, we could do worse than start with silos. They are a busted flush. A relic of 20th century attitudes to work. The 21st century might not have brought us jet packs and rocket cars but the new breed of leaders can surely help us find the wings to soar and dream once more.