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Editor in Chief

Shadow IT: Boon or burden?

Jan 28, 20147 mins

Shadow IT is defined as IT systems and/or services brought into the organization without IT approval. While it is often perceived as sneaky and potentially dangerous, some contend that Shadow IT can lead to innovation and increased productivity and efficiency.

The Experts
David Chou

CIO of the University of Mississippi Medical Center argues that Shadow IT is a real threat that organizations have to learn to control. View debate

Steven Silberstein

Chief Technology Officer at SunGard says that, done right, Shadow IT can make organizations more fleet of foot. View debate


Shadow IT is a burden

IT systems built and used without organizational approval — so called “Shadow IT” — is a major burden for the CIO that will damage the cohesion of enterprise systems, represents an uncontrollable cost and overrides compliance requirements.

But Shadow IT is real and something you have to address. In fact, my role as the CIO requires balancing the benefits of consolidated management and control against decentralized, non-managed IT resources, many of which rate higher in terms of end user satisfaction.  

User experience, for example, is a key driver for an upcoming BYOD effort in which we will create an entire mobile workforce, so getting a handle on Shadow IT is extremely critical. The first step is understanding why it exists in the first place. 

For example, is the IT department not delivering required solutions/services, thereby creating the motivation for the users to reach outside?  Or is IT being too restrictive and hobbling user productivity? 

Once you understand the motivations that give rise to Shadow IT, you have a better chance of putting in place tools and processes that will prevent the need for alternatives to core IT services.

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We realize, for example, that we are moving towards an era where user experience will drive technology, and technology leaders of the organization must collaborate and be solid partners with the business. So my goals are to:

  1. Create a flexible and trusting environment tailored to the user experience so it is aligned with employee satisfaction
  2. Craft an enterprise mobility strategy that allows for a mobile workforce that incorporates BYOD and cloud tools so employees can have access anywhere, anytime
  3. Adopt social networking style interaction that fosters innovation and collaborative learning
  4. Over communicate with the 9,600 employees throughout the state so they understand what we are doing and why we are doing it

These goals should allow technology to be an enabler of the organization while we collaborate and work closely with the business leaders and limit the need for Shadow IT resources. Shadow IT will not go away, but it will be a lot easier to control if we identify why it exists in the first place and put in place sanctioned resources that meet user needs.

Chou is CIO of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.


Embrace Shadow IT

I don’t like the term “Shadow IT” because it suggests a negative type of IT ─ a deviant thing that needs to stay in the shadows.  In a technology landscape increasingly dominated by cloud, social and mobile, it would be a mistake to perpetuate this old way of thinking.  A growing reality is that Shadow IT is often what gives organizations the agility to respond quickly to changing demands, threats and opportunities.

Instead of denying this development, or working against it, let’s embrace it and bring Shadow IT out into the light.  A progressive approach to Shadow IT can empower enterprises and their people while allowing central IT to focus on the things where it can add the most value.

Technology is pervasive in our lives and most of us have been conditioned to buy, sell, download, share and interact with the stroke of a few keys or the swipe of a finger.  Whether it’s the e-commerce sites, social networks or smart devices we daily use, nearly everyone has high expectations for technology.  We demand functionality, utility, speed and convenience.  And if a particular technology doesn’t meet our needs, we find a different version – there are just so many options available. 

Today we bring these rich expectations from our personal lives into our offices. Everyone is a technologist to some degree, savvy enough to know when there’s a better way to get something done. That raises the bar for IT groups and puts them in a potentially “no win” situation. 

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Within most enterprises, it’s just not feasible for a centralized IT function to be cost effective and move quickly enough to satisfy the needs of all its constituents, as these needs are often too disparate, specialized or dynamic. It’s also not possible for IT to be the single source of technology innovation. 

In today’s information economy, the innovation needed to continuously adapt and serve constantly changing customer needs must come from the whole organization. Furthermore, in cases where a particular technology has been commoditized, it’s hard for centralized IT to beat the economics and lead times of readily available cloud solutions which knowledgeable users can find on their own. 

These are some of the reasons why Shadow IT exists and continues to grow. So what is an IT organization to do?

If IT views itself primarily as the group which dictates and owns all the technology, it will eventually be viewed as a relic of the past and a “blocker” that just gets in the way. To stay mission critical, the IT of today – and the future – must be as nimble as its end users, and drive results by empowering the enterprise and its people. Of course, the conundrum for most IT groups is how to do this without exposing the enterprise to greater risks and costs.

Re-thinking how we view Shadow IT might be the answer. 

A fundamental aspect of mainstreaming Shadow IT is the acceptance that there is not going to be uniformity, for uniformity is a losing battle to fight for most large enterprises, and one that can stifle innovation. 

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating for an “anything goes” approach either. The best results will come by creating a culture of conformity through transparency, partnership and collaboration. Such a culture creates a virtuous circle, where users feel empowered to make some decisions, but at the same time, they recognize the value IT brings and willingly want to share with IT what they are doing and why they are doing it. 

Not only does this strengthen IT’s standing in an organization, it also strengthens IT’s ability to manage aspects of IT which cannot and must not be optional: information security, compliance with regulatory requirements and leveraging the purchasing power of the organization.

A great example of how a culture of transparency, partnership and collaboration can optimize results is whenever multiple groups in the same organization are looking to achieve the same goals. If these groups proactively share their desire with central IT, the latter can work on behalf of the entire enterprise to assist in finding the best solution, share existing solutions in different parts of the organization and negotiate better terms and volume pricing if applicable. The key here is for IT to build a culture that makes colleagues feel comfortable to share these ideas and requests with IT.  

IT should be perceived as a business partner, not as a service organization, and Shadow IT as the empowering ally it is when it is supported by the right culture and environment. An innovative organization will only thrive in an environment where everyone has some freedom while working towards the same goals. Let’s bring Shadow IT into the light and call it what it really is, an engine for enterprise-wide empowerment and innovation that can accelerate the business.

Silberstein is Chief Technology Officer at SunGard.