6 ways 'shadow IT' can actually help IT

Users love shadow IT, but IT departments hate the very idea. It doesn't have to be that way.

shadow it
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In most IT departments, the very words "shadow IT" conjure visions of out-of-control users merrily spreading sensitive data on insecure services and unapproved devices, risking huge losses and costing IT personnel lost sleep. From the CIO to the help desk, IT folks typically make their disdain clear to any user who will listen.

But most users aren't listening. They're too busy riding the wave of slick cloud-based apps and services and powerful consumer-oriented devices to do their work faster, easier, and cheaper than they can with the outmoded enterprise offerings available through official channels. They see shadow IT as essential to achieving maximum productivity.

Is there any way to resolve this fundamental disconnect? For shadow IT to provide real benefits to both users and the IT department?

I have long been convinced there was, so when Wayne Byrne, director of product at cloud provider KeyedIn, wanted to discuss the biggest threats from shadow IT, I changed gears and asked for his opinion on the biggest opportunities presented by shadow IT. Here's what he came up with:

  1. Productivity. "You can't manage absolutely everything," Byrne said. You have to have a release valve for the things users care about most. Users are often stuck between a rock and a hard place, he noted, but "not getting the job done is not an option…A salesperson might get in trouble for using an unapproved app to manage his leads, but he'll definitely get fired if he doesn't make his numbers." If your company is still using clunky "dinosaurs" like Microsoft Sharepoint or Lotus Notes, Byrne said, they're wasting productivity.
  2. Worker buy-in. The hard truth is that many shadow IT tools really do perform better than the company-approved alternatives, at least by the criteria that matter to users. Letting them use tools that make sense can generate a huge amount of user trust, buy-in, and enthusiasm—which can carry over to official solutions. Younger employees in particular are less willing to use bad technology just because the company mandates it. "Bringing employees into the IT conversation can be helpful for everyone," Byrne said.
  3. Visibility. Shadow IT provides a window into what employees really need to do, and a peek at possible solutions. "It's a little like skunkworks," Byrne said. You can see what people need and what might work without having to spin up a massive IT project. If employees try various social collaboration tools, for example, seeing which ones are most popular and why could help IT choose the company's preferred solution to integrate and support.
  4. Testing and troubleshooting. It can be difficult for IT to properly test and troubleshoot new applications and services unless they're being used at scale. Shadow IT can provide a base of users to test possible approved and managed solutions without a formal IT rollout. That's particularly helpful for testing the potential for user adoption. "The best proof that someone will use something," Byrne said, "is that they're already using it." Byrne recommended setting up a "sand box" where users can try out solutions they're interested in without causing problems, and IT can track the results.
  5. Mobile. The key here, Byrne said, is to "bring Darth Vader to the light side of the Force" by offering users a flexible range of choices and devices. Give them access to the features and devices they want, but on a proper Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) system that can protect their data, include automated kill switches, and so on. Perhaps closer to BYOD than pure shadow IT, this point is still a step toward recognizing the value of letting employees find their own solutions.
  6. Email and Microsoft Office. Many corporate email systems are so antiquated and insecure that even cloud-based consumer-oriented services offer an improvement, Byrne said. Older email systems often back up email on the smartphone, he said, creating security risks if the device is lost or stolen. Similarly, collaborating on Microsoft Office apps can be inherently insecure. Before you criticize shadow IT too much, be sure that your corporate system isn't worse, he concluded.

Let's hope most companies' existing corporate solutions aren't so bad that shadow IT alternatives represent improvements even in the areas that IT cares about most, like security and manageability. But even if your company isn't in such dire technological straights, there's still a lot to be gained by finding ways to embrace shadow IT instead of automatically trying to stamp it out.

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