[SIGCIS-Members] Origin of term "information silo"?

Janet Abbate abbate at vt.edu
Fri Aug 2 20:44:31 PDT 2013

Thanks for that citation, Martin. Gore does use the metaphor with a specific reference to agriculture: 

"Our current national information policy resembles the worst aspects of our old agricultural policy, which left grain rotting in thousands of storage silos while people were starving. We have warehouses of unused information 'rotting,' while critical questions are left unanswered and critical problems are left unsolved. For example, the Landsat satellite is capable of taking a complete photograph of the entire earth's surface every two weeks. It has been operating for nearly 20 years. Yet more than 95 percent of those images, which might be invaluable to farmers, environmental scientists, geologists, educators, city planners and businesses, have never been seen by human eyes." (Excerpt from Al Gore, Scientific American, Sept 1991, p152.)

This is a bit different from the business usage, which list members have described as based on the visual image of a vertical block on an organization chart resembling the shape of a silo, rather than any functional idea of what a silo does on a farm. 

To me there is a fundamental difference between the two uses, because the information silo just holds information, whereas the organizational silo contains people as well as information. The former usage laments an underutilized resource (see Gore), while the latter criticizes the benighted people in the silo who are too selfish, clueless, or set in their ways to share information horizontally across the organization. The former usage acknowledges that there might be a good reason for collecting a lot of information in one place. One doesn't "bust" a library, archive, or database; one tries to arrange better access. The business usage seems to delegitimize the very idea of specialized knowledge. 

Allen Olley also found a few early references to "information silo" that are positive or neutral, simply referring to an information repository. Again, different from the business usage, which seems uniformly negative. 

So my suspicion is that the term was used in two separate ways for information and organizations, but the two meanings have possibly converged in recent years. 

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread!


On Aug 2, 2013, at 4:21 51PM, Martin Campbell-Kelly wrote:

> Janet, 
> The first time I encountered this term was in the article in Scientific
> American by Al Gore "Infrastructure for the Global Village", Sept 1991. 
> Martin 
> -
> Martin Campbell-Kelly, Dept of Computer Science
> University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, U.K.
> voice: +44 24 7652 3193 fax: +44 24 7657 3024
> email: M.Campbell-Kelly at warwick.ac.uk 
> -----Original Message-----
> From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
> Behalf Of Janet Abbate
> Sent: 02 August 2013 20:11
> To: sigcis
> Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Origin of term "information silo"?
> Does anyone know the origin of the term "information silos"? It's commonly
> used as a criticism of groups that don't share information for either
> organizational or technical reasons. 
> This has always struck me as an odd metaphor. After all, in real life it's a
> good thing that grain is isolated in a silo; there is no physical-world
> benefit to connecting or "busting" silos, so how did this become a metaphor
> for good information management? And why would slowly fermenting fodder be a
> good metaphor for information?
> I'm assuming here that the term refers to farming and not to missile
> silos... which would be equally odd. 
> Janet
> Dr. Janet Abbate
> Associate Professor 
> Science & Technology in Society
> Virginia Tech
> www.sts.vt.edu/ncr
> www.linkedin.com/groups/STS-Virginia-Tech-4565055
> www.facebook.com/VirginiaTechSTS
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