Shadow IT: How to Win Back Control Over Your Company’s IT

by Esther Daga

As business software becomes more and more user friendly, employees and managers are finding that they no longer need to seek help from the IT department before downloading and installing their own solutions. This phenomenon, known as shadow IT, poses obvious risks to company security and productivity. While employees who partake in these behaviors may view their actions as resourceful, they ultimately often do more harm than good.


The mistake that many business leaders make when addressing shadow IT is treating the issue without recognizing it as a symptom of a larger problem. If shadow IT is a rampant issue within your organization, it may be telling you something bigger about your employees’ needs that aren’t currently being met. Without tackling those needs head on, you’ll find that instances of shadow IT continue to surface across the organization regardless of what policies you put into place.

What is shadow IT?

For a moment, imagine that you are a manager in charge of a large team of salespeople. Lately, you’ve felt completely overwhelmed by the volume of emails flooding your inbox every day. In fact, just last week you missed an important email from a client, causing a problem that landed you in a stern meeting in your boss’s office.

While recounting your frustrations at lunch one day to a friend who is a manager at a different company, your friend mentions that she recently installed an email extension that helps her stay organized. Not only does the app automatically sort her emails and notify her when she needs to reply to something, it’s completely free to install. You write down the name of the extension and, as soon as you’re back at your desk, download and install the extension on your own account.

This is just one of many shadow IT examples that demonstrate how easy it is for shadow IT to creep into your organization. While something as trivial as an email extension may sound harmless, installing it means granting the app access to the contents of your entire inbox, some of which includes sensitive corporate data. Since an IT department hasn’t reviewed the extension, there’s no way to know for sure whether its security measures are sufficient to protect this information from being leaked or exposed.

Shadow IT, according to Gartner, refers to “IT devices, software and services outside the ownership or control of IT organizations”. This shadow IT meaning can apply to anything from small email extensions to more significant paid services or software, even physical devices like the Amazon Echo. And if one thing is clear, it’s that shadow IT will only grow over time as business tech producers prioritize user-friendly interfaces.


What causes shadow IT?

While employees sometimes decide to use new tools at work simply out of personal preference, shadow IT is most often caused by a failure or shortcoming within the company’s existing IT infrastructure. Understanding and identifying these causes are the first step in addressing shadow IT and coming up with alternative solutions that don’t leave employees feeling the need to improvise in order to get their job done.


Employees’ needs aren’t being met with the current infrastructure

One of the most common causes of shadow IT is a failure of current systems and technologies to meet employees’ day-to-day needs. If you’ll think back to our example of the sales manager with an overflowing email inbox, it seems that the company’s existing email software didn’t have the native features that managers needed to keep their inboxes decluttered and running efficiently.

A related issue occurs when company leadership has attempted to implement the necessary infrastructure, but the solutions chosen are either too slow, outdated, or give a poor experience to those who use them. Employees who are faced with these deficiencies may feel that they have no other choice but to implement their own solutions.

When employees take their work away from their desks, working from home or simply checking their email on the go, an additional dimension is introduced to the equation. The applications being run on company computers also need to work on portable devices like smartphones and tablets. If multiple devices aren’t supported by these technologies, you may find your employees relying on shadow IT to stay on top of tasks while they’re away from their monitor.

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Existing technology is too complex

Nothing is more frustrating as an employee leader than investing valuable resources into cutting-edge technology to meet your employees’ needs, only to find them resorting to shadow IT instead. But this can easily become a reality when new systems are introduced without the proper company-wide training on how to use them. Is it possible, for example, that our sales manager’s email client came with all the organizational features that were needed, but the manager simply hadn’t received adequate training to know that they existed?

We know that varying levels of digital dexterity mean that while some employees adapt quickly to complex new technologies, others will lag behind and struggle to learn them. These employees that lack digital dexterity may resist adapting to company-wide initiatives if they feel frustrated or confused, instead resorting back to programs they’re more comfortable with – without even realizing they’re partaking in shadow IT. This is why it’s essential to accompany any new application or device with a robust training program that keep even the least tech-savvy employees in mind.

Approval processes are too long

Today’s business world moves faster than ever before. Sometimes it seems that just as your company has upgraded to the newest technology, something even more cutting-edge takes its place. Companies that are too slow to adapt can leave their employees high and dry without the necessary tools to keep up with the rest of the industry. Shadow IT can occur when employees ask for a new technology, but their request gets lost in corporate bureaucracy or the approval process takes too long. Employees will eventually grow tired of waiting and feel forced to upgrade their workflow without approval.


Clients and external partners are using incompatible technologies

There’s a reason that certain industries have a tendency to converge around the same applications and operating systems. When interacting with clients and external partners, employees need the ability to share files and collaborate just as seamlessly as they would with a colleague within the organization. For example, if an employee finds that they can’t open a time-sensitive file they’ve just been emailed from a client, they may rush to download a compatible program, unwittingly contributing to shadow IT.


Shadow IT pros and cons

We’ve reviewed many shadow IT risks and discussed why and how these rogue technologies can find their way into your corporate network. But contrary to how it may appear, shadow IT isn’t all black and white. These are some of the pros and cons associated with shadow IT:


Pros of shadow IT

  • Promotes innovation
  • Can increase productivity
  • Faster adaptation to new technologies


Cons of shadow IT

  • Ineffective governance
  • Creates security vulnerabilities
  • Lack of cohesion across teams
  • Exposes the company to licensing issues
  • Can lead to higher costs


Creating an effective shadow IT policy

Most employees who partake in shadow IT are unaware that their actions could be harmful or go against company policy; on the contrary, they often have nothing but good intentions in mind. To make sure everyone is up to speed, good shadow IT policy should clearly define shadow IT and explain why this practice is discouraged. The policy also needs to detail how employees can go through approved channels to request and implement new technologies as they see a need for additional solutions.

The core piece of managing shadow IT is effective communication. Your IT department needs to be a stakeholder in any decisions involving new software or devices in order to properly vet them. Policies should be clear on which individuals and departments need to sign off on new technologies. This may mean taking some decision-making power away from managers who have historically been given universal authority to implement solutions as they see fit. However, as long as the approval process is speedy and streamlined, everyone should be able to get on board with the new policy.


Digital workplaces: a solution to shadow IT?

When shadow IT occurs within your company, use it as an opportunity to gain insight on employee needs that aren’t being met with current systems and technologies. If you’re struggling to stay on top of the various applications and devices that power your employees’ workflows, it’s probably time to consolidate things into one cohesive digital workplace.

A digital workplace acts as a single hub that provides your employees with all the tools they need to do their job efficiently, without the need to fill in the gaps with additional technologies. This effectively reduces shadow IT by letting employees choose from an expansive list of pre-approved applications. If that wasn’t enough, digital workplaces are highly customizable and always up to date, ensuring your company never falls behind the curve.

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