By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Living with stovepipes

As very attentive readers of my past columns and blogs might conceivably remember -- actually, anybody who remembers should probably win a prize -- I teach an executive education class as part of a unit on organizational design that deals with stovepipes and teams. Participants in the program -- either GS-15's/colonels or SES/one-star generals -- typically appreciate both the virtues of stovepipes and their limitations.

Stovepipes are great at developing functional knowledge among staff -- through practice, specialization and knowledge-sharing among colleagues. They create a great esprit de corps inside the stovepipe. But they also create problems with coordination and with knowledge-sharing and perspective-taking that goes beyond the narrow stovepipe domain.

When I teach the class, I encourage participants to discuss experiments going on inside their organizations to maintain as far as possible the virtues of stovepipes while discouraging the downsides. Most of the experiments involve, in one way or another, having stovepipe staff divide their time, and psychological attention, between their stovepipe and an organizational perch that gives them a larger organizational picture.

In the class I just taught, a Marine colonel brought up an example of a successful effort that is so obvious that I'm surprised that nobody ever brought it up in class before (or that I didn't bring it up on my own) -- Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

This law required that to become a general officer, the uniformed military needed to do at least one tour in a joint command. I asked the uniformed officers in the class (generally full colonels) whether the general view was that this change in organizational design had increased actual collaboration across services, and the unanimous answer (13 of 13) was "yes." One DOD civilian employee who had served ten years in uniform before Goldwater-Nichols and ten years afterwards said that he could experience the difference while in uniform.

This of course has lessons for all agencies about the value of giving people in stovepipes exposure to other organizations as a way of broadening perspectives and improving collaboration. It also is an optimistic story about the government's ability to re-design itself to improve performance.

One of the participants brought up social networks and communities of practice as a way to share information among functionals who are working on teams outside their stovepipe. Some form of information-sharing for dispersed functionals needs to be in place so they have a way to improve and update their knowledge base. The class member said his organization had stood up such a network only a few weeks ago, and already it was active and lively, with people asking questions and getting answers. This is an effort to try to substitute for the conversations across nearby cubicles that take place for information sharing within functional stovepipes.

I asked the class (GS-15's and colonels) how many of them personally were active participants in an online community of practice involving their functional area, and about three-quarters of the class raised their hands. Five years ago the percentage would certainly have been much lower.

Posted on May 06, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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