Shadow IT: Onetime Hidden, Often Hated, But Well Worth Embracing

A business user's need to scratch a technical itch can provide great benefit to both company and IT.

Credit: Tom Merton
Shadow IT: Onetime hidden, often hated, but well worth embracing

Shadow IT sounds like a dirty little secret. Handled well, it can be much more than that.

When a tech-savvy user -- often a self-appointed one -- builds or buys technology for more than just personal use, that’s shadow IT.

We’re talking spreadsheet templates for use within a workgroup, signing up with a SaaS vendor to make an application available for a department, contracting an outside IT services vendor to build custom software.

These end runs around IT may either put food in the company’s mouth or bite it in the behind. You just have to know how best to support it.

Here are 5 reasons IT should embrace shadow IT, and 5 ways for IT to make it thrive.

Case No. 1 for embracing shadow IT: Bandwidth

The demand for IT services always exceeds the supply. IT can only take on so much, so it’s almost always stretched too thin. Having IT take on more than it can handle means multitasking. And that ensures less work -- and poorer-quality work, for that matter -- gets done in the same period of time.

Enter shadow IT. Because shadow IT delivers information technology without involving the IT department, it adds bandwidth instead of overutilizing it.That lets IT handle more essential tasks like integration.

Case No. 2 for embracing shadow IT: Requirements

When IT is involved, it assigns a business analyst whose job is to figure out what the technology is supposed to do. This means learning the business area, learning how things are done now, and then figuring out how new or different software can help.

Smart CIOs have started to embed tech staff in business areas to shortcut the learning process, but this takes a bite out of the IT time budget.

But with shadow IT, the whole learning or embedding process goes away because the people making the tech happen are already embedded, and they already know the problems, current processes, and how to improve from there.

Case No. 3 for embracing shadow IT: Culture

We’re in the second decade of the 21st century, but most companies don’t care enough about technical literacy to include “mastery of the tools of the trade” in their performance appraisals.

Shadow IT provides a way for employees who have mastered the tools to gain some recognition for it instead of being the go-to grunts who are constantly interrupted from their own work by colleagues who have found that, “Hey, you’re good with Excel – can you…?” is a great way to get their tech-literate compatriots to do their jobs for them.

Case No. 4 for embracing shadow IT: Lubrication

Big “IT projects” -- really, big business change projects -- need big, tangible returns on investment. One reason: The company has to decide which ones to take on (see “Bandwidth,” Case No. 1 above).

But while it isn’t always easy to demonstrate how eliminating a bunch of small-scale bottlenecks delivers a tangible financial return on investment, that’s a measurement problem, not a lack-of-value problem.

Think of shadow IT as spraying graphite powder on the company’s work practices. It cuts down the friction. And because these projects are handled inside a manager’s cost center, nobody has to get outside approval first -- there’s no need to prove the ROI.

Case No. 5 for embracing shadow IT: Culture, again

“Innovation” is a hot buzzword these days. Every company needs it. Few companies have it, or what it takes.

Unlike most hot buzzwords, however, innovation really is something every company needs -- not just in its products, but everywhere. Innovation isn’t a technique. It’s an attitude that says, “Good enough isn’t good enough.” It’s the assumption that there’s a better way to do things. We just have to find it.

Shadow IT is all about innovation. Encourage it, and you encourage the attitude.

Shadow IT support technique No. 1: Respect

Your average non-IT employee goes home from his or her job and figures out World of Warcraft, a mobile device or two, and any number of cloud services on their own, for fun. But lots of IT professionals still tell White Out-on-the-screen jokes, and even worse, believe them.

It’s time to change the IT culture, from expecting users to be tech-illiterate morons to expecting them to be able to find their backsides -- and lots of interesting software features, too -- even without both hands and a map.

Shadow IT support technique No. 2: Modernize information security

The old information security model was to harden the perimeter with a firewall. If that didn’t do the trick, we’d create multiple perimeters-within-perimeters. Preventing penetration was the secret to success.

As business users became more mobile with their use of technology, and “teleworkers” who live outside the firewall became a prominent staffing solution, this model stopped being viable. The new model? The perimeter is hard enough. Now harden the assets.

Shadow IT needs hardened assets because it deploys new tech inside the firewall, and the people doing it, while tech-savvy, aren’t always security-savvy.

Shadow IT support technique No. 3: Provide tools and advice

IT has two ways to avoid a tech free-for-all. The first is to Just Say No. But that doesn’t work. Just saying no is how user IT became shadow IT in the first place. So all it does is encourage an unmanageable proliferation of tech tools in the business.

The other way to avoid a free-for-all is to get ahead of everyone else. Figure out the best tools possible for shadow-ITers to use. Then make them available, promote them, and provide education in their use.

Hey, it worked when IT replaced all the answering machines with a single voicemail system. Why not for this, too?

Shadow IT support technique No. 4: Get out of the way

Sometimes all you have to do to encourage something is to stop putting up roadblocks.

Want shadow IT to happen in your company? Stop trying to stop it. Stop trying to steer it. Stop working so hard to prevent bad things from happening in ways that end up preventing good things from happening.

Want to prevent bad things from happening? Start by preventing everything that stifles all the innovations that could make your company the meanest, nastiest competitor on the block. So don’t just get out of the way of shadow IT. Get everyone else out of the way, too.

Shadow IT support technique No. 5: Live it

Shadow IT encourages innovation everywhere -- innovation that makes work flow more smoothly, helps employees collaborate, and who knows what else?

Doesn’t that sound like something that would benefit the IT organization, too?

If IT isn’t the organization that makes the most out of information technology in its own processes and practices -- and doesn’t just make the most of it, but innovates with it the most -- there’s something seriously wrong. Sadly, in many IT organizations, there is something seriously wrong.

Don’t let it be yours.

With shadow IT there’s a parade going on. Want to provide leadership? First you have to run to get in front of it.