Shadow IT. The very name sounds like a nefarious organization, operating in secret away from the prying eyes of the pure and noble. Despite its imposing name, shadow IT has now become a common practice in many organizations for good or for ill depending on who is asked. In a nutshell, shadow IT involves employees using systems and software that have not been approved by their organization’s IT department, and the trend is growing. One study shows that shadow IT exists in 75 percent of companies, and many IT experts predict that number will only grow in the future. With bring your own device (BYOD) policies becoming the norm and cloud computing making significant inroads into the workplace, it’s clear that shadow IT isn’t going away soon. That’s left many businesses to ask whether shadow IT is truly harmful or if it actually has a lot to offer the enterprise. Is shadow IT a blessing or a curse? Friend or foe?
Shadow IT comes about for multiple reasons. One of the most common is when employees feel like the systems and programs they normally use simply aren’t getting the job done. As a result, they turn to other sources like apps on their mobile devices or applications from cloud service providers to allow them to do their jobs more efficiently. For obvious reasons, IT departments don’t like seeing workers go behind their backs, particularly when the indirect message is that what IT prescribes isn’t good enough. Employees may even go to IT with suggestions, but a common complaint is the slow response and lack of follow-up IT gives to questions, concerns, and ideas. So employees often feel like they have no choice but to look for and adopt answers on their own.
IT departments may try to address some of these causes, but workers have the tendency to want to try things out for themselves. So should shadow IT be encouraged or discouraged? To answer that, it’s important to look at the benefits and disadvantages that come from it. As can be seen by the causes, a major advantage from shadow IT is the increased productivity of employees. Working independently, employees can often find solutions that help them do their jobs more efficiently. Some workers may even program new systems themselves, automating tasks that would normally take more time. This can result in a lightening of some of the burden IT departments often experience. At the same time, with all this exploration and discovery, innovation gets a much needed boost. If an employee finds a new app that can greatly benefit everyone else, the company can use it across the whole organization. Facebook, after all, was a creation of shadow IT. Imagine what other innovative ideas are waiting to be unlocked from inventive employees.
But as can be imagined, shadow IT also carries significant drawbacks. Perhaps the one most cited is the security risks that come from employees using unchecked apps and programs. With BYOD on the rise in many organizations, BYOD security has become a major issue, especially since many employees use unauthorized apps on their devices. The security risks of shadow IT can also lead to an increased risk of losing corporate data, which can be debilitating to a business. Employees finding their own systems and programs can also lead to inconsistencies and incompatibilities when paired with a company’s existing systems. This can have an opposite intended effect, making work more difficult and slowing operations down. Shadow IT can also increase conflict between IT departments and their employees, especially if IT is unresponsive to the needs of workers.
There is no easy solution for how to handle shadow IT. On its own, shadow IT is really neither a curse nor a blessing; it’s what organizations make of it. Those that see shadow IT as an opportunity can really turn it to their advantage. Companies that see shadow IT as a hindrance may actually hurt their organizations more if they try to get rid of it. In essence, to truly make the most of shadow IT’s benefits, IT departments will need to change their roles, becoming more managerial and focusing on internal systems while monitoring external programs. Luckily, many IT departments are responding in that way, which in turn helps improve company culture and maximize the benefits of shadow IT. As more organizations get a handle on it, they’ll be better able to manage shadow IT effectively and reap the rewards it offers.