Specialization- the process by which we have achieved space flight, agriculture, engineering, science, industry, efficiency, and ninjas.

Although specialization can lead to excellence, it can have unintended consequences or stem from conditions of disparity.

A meandering anecdote now follows: My wife and I took her grandfather to the Museum of Industry a few weeks ago. As a lifelong tinkerer, woodcrafter, history buff, and political activist, it was in many ways an ideal activity for his 91st birthday visit here in Baltimore. If you haven’t been there, I recommend it. The quality of the overall experience was very impressive, including a complimentary docent tour with admission. It was through the docent that we learned about the specialization that took place among the industry workers in Baltimore circa 1900.

Many of the examples of specialization were impressive — for instance, oyster shuckers could move at an amazing pace, as could all the other piece-workers responsible for prepping, canning, and labeling the products moving through the factories. This led to safe, affordable food that could be distributed for hundreds of miles to the significant benefit of the nation and the industries that operated the workshops and factories.

On the other hand, the labor that powered these engines of industry were often entire families, including children. In addition, some of the hardest work was the only work that African Americans could get hired for. Injury and death in turn of the century factories was a fact of life. Also, although useful, mastery of oyster-shuckery has limited transferability, and mobility to other, safer or more lucrative occupations was very difficult.

So, despite the wonderful things that specialization can and does produce, it can be caused by (and reinforce) racism and poverty.

A phrase that gets used a lot in social science, among other disciplines, is silos. The word evokes a stark image in my mind, isolated towers full of a single kind of stuff. Efficient? Yes, of course. But who wants just one kind of stuff? Diversity is essential for a complete experience. Despite my hereditary love of bread, I am certainly not about to limit my diet to strictly bread. [OK, add some cheese, and then maybe….]

Silos are perhaps an effective analogy for the partitioned experiences we have in our day-to-day lives as well. We have our professional personality, colleagues, and activities, and our private versions of the same. Little self-silos if you like. Groups of social contacts broken up by shared experiences and backgrounds — the group you exercise with, the group you party with, the group we have children’s playgroups with.

I’ve been thinking about silos and the efficacy of innovation for a couple weeks. I attended an event recently which brought together social entrepreneurs to problem-solve some issues that a half a dozen organizations brought to the table over a few hours. As is often my experience in Baltimore, there were people from very different backgrounds, different ages, men and women, all with a passion- via their own silo — to effect positive change in their city and the world.

Breaking down the walls of their own pet projects to contribute their energy toward projects outside their silos gave each participant a sense of the universe of other silos outside their own. At the end, however, one bold woman pointed out that the full diversity of the city was not well represented. The targets of many socially beneficial projects in Baltimore are the residents and environments in poor, predominantly African American neighborhoods, and yet members of these communities are very often neglected when the invitations go out. Not by intention, but as a result of the natural process of silos. Specialization, remember, tends to focus similar energy and resources into a self-contained cluster. The organizers, by the way, acknowledged the challenge and committed to a conscious effort toward broadening the population of participants.

I would like to suggest a similar challenge for each of us this week:

First, identify your silos. Where are you most comfortable? Who do you hang out with most often? How do you work toward your ideals?

Next pick one of those silos and break out of it for a day. Remember, you’re reading this because you have at least a passing interest in innovative, transformative social change. Switching brands of jelly does NOT count, even if it was made by a local organic producer. Bring someone into a new social circle; allow their views to inform the activity, conversation, and menu. Get outside your comfort zone, talk to someone you disagree with, and finally, share your experience with others on digital and interpersonal social networks.

Author Adam Conway

Adam Conway is a recent transplant to Baltimore, an advocate for intelligent, holistic policy in government and industry, and a potter. After receiving undergraduate degrees in art and psychology, Adam pursued a career in mental health care, serving those with mental illness in residential and community settings. In 2011, he completed a Master's in Public Health Policy at the University of Pittsburgh, and is now devoted to addressing systemic issues affecting the entire population- health, environment, food, and policy. He also has been making functional and decorative pottery for over ten years (www.FreeRangePottery.com) in community studio settings because he likes people and is inspired by their work. Any opinions expressed in Adam’s articles are his own and are not intended to represent those of any agency or organization for which he is employed.

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Colin Seal says:

    Great post! I think this is SO important. To often, we get stuck in our silo and it is where we as individuals can find our confidence, self identity, etc etc. I think it can also be where we develop a sense of comfort because it is what we know. I work for a non-profit and it is one I am passionate about because I am a member of the community that the organization represents. I have created my own silo and struggle to get out of it! I read this on Friday and thought about it over the weekend. I have realized it is time to get involved and volunteer with a new organization that involves a new, yet to be determined, passion or interest. I will let you know where my adventure away from the silo takes me! Look forward to your next challenge!

  • Adam Conway says:

    Colin, thanks very much for the comment. As you say, the Silo is a place of comfort, and allows us to develop skills and confidence. I salute you for your commitment to getting uncomfortable, as Robyn Stegman put it in her post on Monday. Getting a little uncomfortable allows us to use new thought processes and break out of old patterns, regardless of how beneficial they may be. I look forward to your updates!

  • […] thought of this story when I was reflecting onAdam Conway’s call to break silos. I realized that some silos aren’t created by lack of awareness or collaboration, but are […]

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