Afraid of Seeing Your Shadow IT? 4 Important Things to Consider

Mike Allen
November 11, 2014

"Sooner or later, every enterprise has to come to face their own shadow head on - their shadow IT, that is. Over the past few years, the rise of the technology-centric business, as well as disruptions in areas like data management, communication and connected devices, has brought IT and its consumerization to the forefront. More types of enterprise personnel than ever are extensively involved with complex tech tools and are working within areas that were long solely in the purview of IT personnel. As such, it's reshaping the way that enterprise departments function and interact.

Shadow IT - or the utilization of tech tools and practices without explicit authorization from organization leadership - is decidedly on the rise. It's not a new phenomenon, of course - IT teams have always used their own workarounds and systems to get things done, but unless a problem came up, IT and non-tech business leaders could coexist peacefully. It's present in more than 75 percent of organizations, according to CloudTweaks, while about half of IT decision-makers forecast a rise in shadow IT in their operations over the next two years.

Shadow IT: A Two-Sided Coin
It's the increased blurring of traditional lines that is shaking up the status quo, because many of the people immersed in shadow IT aren't tech experts with the training and education to know how to utilize new tech tools without problems. They're bring-your-own-device users. They're marketing professionals diving into tech head on. They're enterprise leaders making changes with significant IT impact that are seen as business decisions first, tech decisions second. It's often a ""make a change"" or ""use a tool first, ask permission later"" mindset. The expanding gray areas can be difficult to manage. Many users may not even know that what they're doing is shadow IT, and may not grasp the risks.

Of course, as any seasoned IT professional can attest, there is certainly a positive side to shadow IT. Innovation doesn't happen because everyone was content to continue using the same strategies and tools. In many cases, experimentation led to significant breakthroughs with game-changing effects for an enterprise. Other workarounds simply make life a little bit easier on a daily basis, and all of that adds up. So where some see shadow IT as fraught with issues, others view it as a potential space in which disruptive ideas can be considered and tried out. It's important, however, to ensure that the people engaged in shadow IT both know that they're involved and know what they're doing.

Here are four key considerations driving the way enterprises should look at the effects of shadow IT - two pros and two cons, because it's important to recognize that shadow IT isn't a black and white issue. It's a gray one.

Pro: A Long Overdue Opportunity
Many enterprises' IT needs are dramatically different than they were even five years ago. Aging environments, however, don't often reflect this, and that's becoming a problem. Organizations are running into availability issues and sluggish system performance, not to mention trying to govern things like cybersecurity and compliance with IT usage policies that date back to the one-desktop-per-employee age. Around half of business decision-makers, while they believe shadow IT poses risks, also believe that it gives them the opportunity to ""get what they want."" Everything from procurement to deployment to management ought to be disrupted by a new way of thinking, and shadow IT might just be the area where this innovation can build and thrive, CloudTweaks contributor Daniel Price pointed out.

""The reason the traditional procurement processes are dying isn't the fault of IT departments per se, but because lots of organizations insist on using a method that is 25 years old and out of touch with the current IT landscape,"" Price wrote. ""IT departments need to listen to the staff, aiming to become a powerful and forward-thinking force that helps make companies more efficient, effective and profitable.""

As proponents of shadow IT suggest, if it's used responsibly, it can be a vital tool in the effort to make a more effective synthesis between businesses and their technology.

Con: The Disconnect is Only Growing
The ""used responsibly"" part is the sticking point for many organizations. Many companies are just having trouble adjusting to the growth of BYOD user bases, cloud adopters and application enthusiasts, and it can create discord. In particular, many enterprises are experiencing issues with IT departments facing off against business leaders and personnel, wrote Information Age contributor Ben Rossi. Many IT departments have grown critical of the way that users abuse company technology policies and practices, posing cybersecurity and compliance risks in doing so. Employees often respond by saying these criticisms are overblown, while business leaders are (from the perspective of the disgruntled IT worker, at least) too focused on the bottom line to recognize shadow IT's issues.

""Has the IT department listened to what the rest of the business is saying? Probably not, if everyone is downloading their own applications,"" Rossi wrote. ""However, is the security case being overstated? Or is the real risk that IT is concerned about losing control - or even their role and status?""

If discord is allowed to fester within the organization, it's only likely to result in shadow IT users to be pushed further to the margins - something that doesn't help anyone.

Pro: Provides New Opportunities for Departments That Need Them
It's no stretch to say that tech has impacted workers in virtually every enterprise department. In that sense, it doesn't make sense to restrict tech use if it potentially offers bottom-line benefits. One example CIO.com contributor Ron Callari considered that benefits from shadow IT is the marketing department. The rise of mobile devices, omni-channel commerce and the consumerization of IT all compelled marketing departments to get more tech-savvy. In this instance, it makes sense to develop IT tools that can further these initiatives - and why not design and deploy them from the perspective and strategic priorities of the users that will eventually utilize them?

""In essence, the advent of digital technologies flipped the script on old marketing,"" Callari observed. ""Transitioning from the pre-Internet paper-based advertising space, Web and mobile engagement required marketing to take an active role in technologies that efficiently met their customers' needs.""

Putting smart tools in the hands of budding IT users could create a perfect environment for radical innovation that would otherwise not happen if everyone played it conservatively.

Con: Cybersecurity, the Ever-present Risk
It's impossible to talk about the pros and cons of shadow IT without examining cybersecurity. There's no way around the fact that more devices, users, applications, network endpoints, etc. will lead to more potential vulnerabilities, and that employee usage that flies under the radar potentially opens up new ones. It's up to organizations to consider all of their employees' needs, both from the IT side and from other departments. Managed services, the cloud and third-party data centers can help shore up protection and network management on the back end.

On the front end, it's important to keep working with users so that they understand the dangers of shadow IT, but without letting too many rules constrict employees from doing the jobs they have to do. It's certainly a fine line to walk, but it's something that enterprises are better off addressing sooner rather than later."



    Mike Allen

    "Sooner or later, every enterprise has to come to face their own shadow head on - their shadow IT, that is. Over the past few years, the rise of the technology-centric business, as well as disruptions in areas like data management, communication and connected devices, has brought IT and its ...

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