The master blender on how new world whiskies are challenging Scotch’s status quo.
I was watching Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime the other night. If you haven’t seen it, please do so, and then watch it again. It is a droll meditation on modern alienation played out in a unrecognisable Paris (actually a city set built by Tati), in which people are cut off from each other. It’s not maybe the first thing which comes to mind when writing about whisky, but now that I have to write every week on the topic I’m finding connections everywhere.
Anyhoo… One of the film’s long set pieces features Tati’s M Hulot trying, and failing, to get to a appointment in a vast, anonymous building. Searching for the man he’s due to meet, he looks down (through glass, inevitably) into a room which is divided into small cubicles. Inside each is a member of staff. No-one talks to each other. They work in isolation, never interact. It’s a pretty neat manifestation of silo thinking.
Maybe I should explain. Silo thinking is when the individual departments in a firm don’t share – or want to share – information. While it’s a mentality which is beginning to be challenged – it has been blamed for helping to cause the financial crash – there are still plenty of firms that function in this way. In a drinks firm, for example, you could see the silos being different categories, or sales channels: one for on-trade, one for off-, one for travel retail, one for specialists. Now replicate that in every one of the firm’s offices and there’s a hell of a lot of people not talking to each other.
Because there is inevitably inter-departmental conflict, this is not so much the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, but the right hand wanting to cut the left hand off.
The upside of this, it can be argued, is that it allows a certain degree of autonomy for individual brands or categories – for example, allowing single malt to exist on its own, rather than just being bundled into ‘whisky’ – but if the people selling it aren’t talking to each other then any advantage this may give, I’d argue, is lost.
Dividing a business into silos also means there is the risk of a lack of coherence within brands. When every market and sales channel is autonomous, each one of them wants its own expression. The brand ends up being warped into unfamiliar shapes, and any consistency of message and flavour is lost. Is this happening in Scotch whisky? In the case of some brands, yes.
I first came across the silo concept via the writings of Gillian Tett who, as the FT’s US managing editor, is considerably more intelligent and perceptive than I, as you can see in this extract from her contribution to the Banque de France’s Financial Stability Review in 2010.
‘…as innovation speeds up in the 21st century, specialists are engaged in highly complex activities in numerous silos, that almost nobody outside that particular silo understands, or even knows about – even though the activity in that silos often has the ability to affect society as a whole.
‘There is thus a bizarre paradox in the 21st century world: namely while the global system is becoming more interconnected in some senses, the level of mental and structural fragmentation remains very intense.’
The bigger the firm is, the more likely this is to happen, and the implications are serious. As Annelise Riles writes on Cornell University’s Collateral Knowledge blog: ‘The silo mentality is not just about a lack of knowledge. It is also about a lack of confidence in one’s ability to communicate with people outside the silo.’
Is that happening in Scotch? You bet it is.
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