A NETWORK ALLOWS PEOPLE TO MOVE OUT OF WORKPLACE SILOS: “People who have ‘done it’ will help you properly define the problem and provide you with experience-based guidance on how to deal with the issue,” stated Joe McGowan, retired Director of Public Works, and network builder in the local government setting


Waterbucket eNews celebrates the leadership of individuals and organizations who are guided by the vision for Living Water Smart in British Columbia to build greener communities and adapt to a changing climate. The edition published on February 1, 2022 featured an article contributed by Joe McGowan, retired Director of Public Works (City of Cranbrook), and network builder in the local government setting.


People who make a difference in the workplace continually adapt to changing conditions in order to improve things and create new opportunities that build foundations for better communities. This is the unifying theme for the feature article by Joe McGowan.

Although retired from local government, the mission continues for Joe McGowan – build and sustain a network that creates a ‘Community of Practice’ where each member of the ‘community’ can help others in the network. His thoughtful, insightful, and informative reflections add to the foundation of resources that the Partnership for Water Sustainability is showcasing as elements of the Living Water Smart in British Columbia Series.

These resources inform the Partnership’s vision for overcoming Generational Amnesia in the British Columbia local government setting. When each generation of land use and infrastructure practitioners is receptive to accepting the intergenerational baton, and embracing the wisdom that goes with it, the decisions of successive generations will benefit from and build upon the experience of those who went before them. This outcome can be achieved through intergenerational collaboration powered by a network that allows people to move out of workplace silos.

Technical knowledge alone is not enough to resolve climate and infrastructure servicing challenges facing British Columbians. Making things happen in the real world requires an appreciation and understanding of human behaviour, combined with a knowledge of how decisions are made. It takes a career to figure this out. Thus, the Partnership is excited to provide Joe with a platform to share his knowledge, experience, and wisdom acquired over decades.




“Joe McGowan is someone to whom I listen when he speaks. The word sage comes to mind. Used as an adjective, this means that what Joe says is characterized by wisdom, prudence, and good judgment,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Executive Director, Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia.

“I met Joe circa 1998 when he picked me up at the Cranbrook airport and drove me to a local government conference where I delivered a keynote presentation on A Water Conservation Strategy for British Columbia. Our conversation during the car ride left me with a positive lasting impression of Joe and his down to earth philosophy about the power of collaboration.”

A Public Works Visionary and Leader

“Joe McGowan has a career record of public works service, leadership, and accomplishment at four scales – local, provincial, national, and cross-border. He is a visionary who takes an idea, brings together and motivates peers to build a network, and guides the idea to implementation through a collaborative process,” continued Kim Stephens.

“Within the BC public works realm, three of his many contributions over the past three decades are the Environmental Operator Certification Program (EOCP); the web-based Training Registry now known as EOCP’s ‘CRM’ – Customer Relations Manager; and the In-House Peer-to-Peer Operator Training Program (P2P) for the East and West Kootenays regions.”

“As EOCP President (1992 -2006), for example, Joe McGowan guided a loosely defined volunteer water and wastewater operator certification body from a position of debt, no office or location to store files, and no provincial standing, to a respected organization prescribed in Provincial Health and Environment legislation with an office, Executive Director, two support employees, and a substantial cash reserve.”

“Joe McGowan has distilled his career experience down to a set of five lessons learned. These also serve as guiding principles, and hence an operational framework, that would help BC local governments achieve the provincial vision for Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery. This easy to remember phrase synthesizes three themes – financial accountability, infrastructure sustainability, service delivery.”

Lessons Learned in Public Works 

PRINCIPLE 1 – Bylaws, policies, and directives do not get things done; good people given good information, support, and the opportunity to succeed at a task get things done.

PRINCIPLE 2 – Proper project definition and design often allows project completion by in-house personnel, sometimes with oversight by specialty contractors or suppliers on select project components.

PRINCIPLE 3 – Involvement of in-house personnel on complex challenges builds staff capabilities, increases confidence, and results in empowered staff that are better able to identify problems and initiate cost-effective utility specific solutions without use of outside consultants and contractors.

PRINCIPLE 4 – Local government employees who understand the overall Vision of a project or program will work to overcome the inevitable challenges that present with any change.  The priority of every leader is to clearly communicate so that affected parties fully understand and appreciate what is proposed and the nature of how the desired outcome is to be achieved.

PRINCIPLE 5 – Proper Public Works operation and maintenance decisions cannot be made in the absence of a detailed infrastructure asset inventory and condition assessment.  This data base combined with knowledge of varied options to replace infrastructure enables decisions to be made on how to mitigate problems, and extend asset lifespan prior to the need to replace infrastructure.


Building networks allows people to move out of silos that are created to reduce risk and criticism: Reflections by Joe McGowan on ‘Growing a Network’

The times they are a-changin” is a 1964 Bob Dylan song that reflected the massive social changes happening in the world in the 60’s.  The lyrics to the song are true today, but do not reflect anything new.  Times have been “a-changin” since the earth came into being.  People who make a difference in the workplace continually adapt to changing conditions in order to improve things and create new opportunities that build foundations for better communities.

Our workforce is dealing with two massive changes.  One is Generational Amnesia and the second is that good people who desire to effect change are often working in silos that limit their contact with colleagues who can help define a problem and provide guidance on how to solve the problem.

Generational amnesia is a phrase used to describe a situation in which organizations lose their memory of how to do things. The world is rapidly losing expertise through retirement which denies new employees the benefit of their predecessor’s knowledge and experience.

The Consequences of Workplace Silos Compound Generational Amnesia

Silos in the workplace are described as individuals or work groups with narrowly defined duties that tend to work in isolation from the other work groups in their organization. Basically, a silo is the administrative or physical separation of groups of what used to be called ‘team members’ who no longer work as a team to address problems.

Often, silos are self-imposed by people with an absence of historical knowledge that results in a fear of failure and the subsequent criticism. People in one silo now tend to not interact with colleagues in other silos, both within their own workforce and in their greater community.

Charles Franklin Kettering advised that “A problem well stated is a problem half solved”. In the absence of real-life experience, or the knowledge of who has done something, it is difficult to define and address many of the significant environmental and infrastructure challenges we are facing today. Working in silos tends to exacerbate the problem.

In today’s world, it is the norm for many people to exit training programs and find themselves in managerial roles without the benefit of exposure to field experience that would give them both a strong basis and confidence upon which to make decisions. Generational amnesia compounds the problem in that people no longer have immediate access to experienced people within their organizations that they might call on to provide history, context, and guidance.

Words That We Fear to Say: “Can You Help Me?”

Isolation from the materials, construction techniques, operational, maintenance, and repair mechanisms and practices often result in people operating out of fear that they will be found to not know what they feel others expect them to know.  Often, to protect themselves from the potential for failure resulting in criticism, they tend to recommend the hiring of outside consultants who also have no operating experience to identify problems and recommend solutions.

This most often results in costly generic cookie cutter solutions that do not fully deal with the problem at hand.  For the person in the silo, this allows them to deflect criticism towards the consultant when things don’t work out as hoped.

A major contributor to the problem is that people working in administrative or self-imposed silos often have little knowledge of the capabilities of workers in other silos within their own organizations.  As a result, these good people lose out on the opportunity to build relationships with people in other silos, both close to them in their own organizations, and in their larger professional community.  It is interesting that the words we so much fear to say, are the words we so enjoy hearing from a colleague; “Can you help me?

Reach Out to Your ‘Community of Practice’ for Help, Support and Guidance

When addressing a problem, you don’t need to know all the answers. There is not much that is unknown.  Individually, we know very little.  What is needed to properly define a problem and succeed at a task is knowledge of ‘who’ might know all or a portion of the answer to a perceived problem.  In order to find the ‘who’, we need to leave the perceived security of the silo and reach out to others who are also likely to be looking for help with their challenges.

Build Your Confidence Through Collaboration:

Once you have identified a member or members within a particular network, you are on the road to finding the people who will provide practical guidance based on real life experience.  These people who have ‘done it’ will help you properly define the problem and provide you with experience-based guidance on how to deal with the issue, often in a cost-effective way using local assets and resources.  Going forward with the benefit of other’s experience, you will have confidence in your actions and the fear of criticism that keeps you in your silo is removed.

Leave Your Silo: 

If you wish to expand your capabilities, you need to build a network that creates a ‘Community of Practice’ where each member of the ‘community’ can help the other.  Building networks takes effort. To do this, you must leave your silo.  You must reach out to others and in doing so, you must share a bit about yourself.  Working together on tasks, whether administrative or physical, builds credibility.  Credibility builds trust, and trust encourages the sharing of knowledge and experience.

Dr. Jane Wei-Skillern, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley so wonderfully states what four decades of experience has taught me.

Application of Guiding Principles for an Effective Community-of-Practice

Dr. Jane has identified four real-life actions that when practiced on a daily basis will help people move out of administrative or self-imposed silos into a network enabled Community of Practice.

Building networks and communities of practice is easy and rewarding.  Options include volunteering within industry and professional organizations, invite colleagues from adjacent communities to coffee or lunch meetings, and one that helped me out a great deal, reach out and form Community of Practice groups in your geographic area.

Share with and Learn from Others:

From my experience, your colleagues are willing to travel 1.5 hours by vehicle to attend meetings where they can benefit from your experience and share theirs.  Face to face gatherings enable participants to get to know their colleagues, which leads to trust.  In gatherings of colleagues, case study presentations go a long way towards identifying ‘who’ has done ‘what’ and who can help you. (Principle #1 – Focus on mission before organization).

Another highly recommended option is to work with the people in your organization.  Invite field personnel to provide input on reported problems. As identified by Dr. Jane, when input is received from field personnel, do not challenge the information they provide.  People who are criticized for their viewpoint will shut down and you are denied their observations (Principle #2 – Manage through trust, not control).

Encourage others to take action in small steps.  Validate the input and actions of others (Principle #3 – Promote others, not yourself).  By encouraging multiple inputs from field personnel and others with related experience you are building a ‘team’ (Principle #4 – Build constellations, not stars).

A Path Forward:

Building networks allows people to move out of today’s administrative and self-imposed silos that are created to reduce risk and criticism.  The guidance provided by Dr. Jane summarizes the actions that have enabled good people to improve their communities by harnessing the experience and skill sets of multiple people.

By following Dr. Jane’s guidance, you may well be the colleague that someone asks, “Can you help me?”.


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About the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC

Technical knowledge alone is not enough to resolve water challenges facing BC. Making things happen in the real world requires an appreciation and understanding of human behaviour, combined with a knowledge of how decisions are made. It takes a career to figure this out.

The Partnership has a primary goal, to build bridges of understanding and pass the baton from the past to the present and future. To achieve the goal, the Partnership is growing a network in the local government setting. This network embraces collaborative leadership and inter-generational collaboration.