Shadow IT: When employees venture to the dark side

The consumerization of IT has users skirting the ‘law’ of IT in favor of renegade apps.

A man using a mobile phone in shadow against a bright wall
Warren Wong (CC0)

The IT landscape today feels like the Wild West as IT managers play “cops and robbers” to chase down and neutralize an ever increasing number of problems. Technologists are mired in an array of high-tech challenges—balancing security with accessibility, integrating legacy and new technologies, and understanding data, to name a few—while under pressure to constantly innovate. But with the speed of technology and business today, what happens when IT teams fall behind? The answer? “Shadow IT.”

TechTarget defines shadow IT as “hardware or software within an enterprise that is not supported by the organization’s central IT department.” The concept emerged more than a decade ago as companies began to acquire more technology (as well as foreign, unsanctioned software) to power their business. IT admins moved quickly to rein in unknown products, and for a time, largely re-established control.

But that control was short-lived. The proliferation of mobile devices and cloud technology allowed employees to download their own tools, once again jeopardizing IT’s control. Worst of all, shadow IT hides out of sight, making it difficult for IT leaders to identify a problem before it’s too late.

To protect the companies, they serve and users alike, smart IT leaders need to identify what shadow IT looks like today, and understand what they can do to make it go away.

Renegade apps run amok

While the factors leading to shadow IT today are the same, the outcome (and risks) are largely new. Equipped with a company credit card and their web browser—users are willing to go outside the scope of IT to get the apps they need to work productively—jeopardizing security and corporate compliance in the process.

Employees who play fast and loose with the rules of IT can lead to renegade apps stirring-up all sorts of trouble, and everyone can contribute to the problem. Executives who store sensitive notes and documents within apps like Evernote and Dropbox put company secrets at risk. The marketing department can cause financial headaches by, for example, purchasing unsanctioned Salesforce licenses for their team members.

When shadow apps run amok outside the scope of IT, a lot can go wrong. Most importantly, without knowledge or control of the apps workers are using, IT admins cannot guarantee corporate or user privacy. Employee workflow and productivity are also at risk. Individual teams that use competing apps (for example, sales uses Slack while engineering uses Microsoft Teams) can make collaboration more difficult, if not impossible. And then there are the costs associated with paying for separate software licenses, or worse, paying double for the same software license across different teams.

User experience is the new king(pin)

So why are users doing this to their IT teams? It’s not to make admins’ lives more difficult (although that is result). No, users are looking for faster, easier ways to work.

Today, a great user experience is no longer the cherry-on-top of a secure product; it’s the whole sundae. Long gone are the days of scheduled training sessions for workers to sit down and learn how to use a new workplace tool. Now, users expect software with “pick up and play” features, easy navigability, great design, and simple to use interfaces. 

This is particularly true for a growing number of younger workers, who grew up with a mobile device in hand. These types of users—who now make up the largest segment of the U.S. workforce and use apps like FaceTime, WhatsApp and Snapchat regularly—will not be thrilled about putting aside time to learn a complex tool. And even if they do, they’re less likely to actually incorporate such an app into their workflow.

IT leaders are certainly strapped with figuring out to provide return on investment for legacy systems, and mesh those with the products workers actually want to use today. But if they continue to turn a blind-eye to the importance of the user experience, they will expose their companies to risk—not only wasting time and resources on unused IT purchases, but also renegade apps and shadow IT.

So, what can be done?

Companies that are truly moving the needle when it comes to enterprise productivity recognize the value of well-designed, simple workplace tools. It sounds simple to say, but IT leaders need to deploy products that employees actually want to use.

Enterprise vendors now recognize this expectation, too. For newer products, user experience differentiates them from pack, allowing them to achieve rapid scale, disrupt stale and entrenched technology providers, and provide more value to end customers. An obvious example of this is Slack, which has revolutionized office communications for startups and enterprises alike through an instant messaging platform that’s intuitive and easy to use.

In addition, there is a growing need for tools that cover every use case, or play nice with other productivity tools to create a seamless workflow for users. This trend of consolidation and integration solves the issues of complexity and digital tool fatigue, simplifies life for both IT admins and end users, and eliminates the need for workers to feel like they need to acquire their own apps.

With the continued consumerization of enterprise software apps and services—particularly in the realms of team collaboration and productivity—there is a continued need for technologists to become strategists.

IT leaders need to be the eyes and ears on the technology front to vet (and purchase) apps and other software. Today, it’s not just enough to make the purchasing decisions or troubleshoot a software problem. The future of IT lies in providing strategic advice to decision-makers to help employees get the tools they need (within the company’s IT framework) to do their jobs better. Do that, and you can reclaim IT from shadows, and enlighten your company to the value of your expertise.

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