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3 Steps to Channeling Shadow IT to Drive Innovation

While many organizations share a vision of creating a culture of problem-solvers, these same firms often have governance processes designed for the speed of business, level of formality and employee behavior found in a 20th century workplace. Like running water, while innovation may appear to be stifled, it is not stopped, simply diverted; it is here, underground, that shadow IT thrives.


Step 1: Build an Inventory

What problems are users solving via unsanctioned applications and tools? Understand the scope of shadow IT, and respect the root causes. Given the very nature of shadow IT there is no inventory to refer to; you must build it. While automated scanning tools can help start the process, it is only through authentic dialog with users at all levels of the organization that a deep, actionable understanding can be developed.


Even in cases where IT leaders are true business partners, it can be easy to lose touch with day-to-day system and process challenges encountered by front-line staff. Productivity pressures and reliance on technology to execute are generally highest several levels below the executive table. While senior IT leadership may be in regular contact with peers across all lines of business, the true frustrations of user groups may not be visible or communicated through the expected channels.


How to get the real story? Consider conducting a carefully designed user survey supplemented by interviews across the enterprise. These should be confidential, and run by an independent and trusted third party. Technology team members can augment this work with ‘day in the life’ shadowing, witnessing first hand, the areas of greatest expressed need.


Through these techniques, an actionable assessment of shadow IT will emerge. Leaders will be empowered with a deeper understanding of the most pervasive pain points that staff are facing, and how shadow IT is being leveraged to address them. In many cases this information will not come as a surprise; items that have long languished in IT prioritization queues, from small enhancements to major systems projects, will have found workarounds in the form of shadow IT applications.


Expect to find that the most popular shadow IT applications not only have the desired functionality, but also have a modern, intuitive user interface, are easy to learn, engaging, productivity-enabling, platform agnostic and mobile-friendly. However, regardless of the benefits experienced, allowing shadow IT to continue unchecked is neither sustainable nor acceptable from a risk management perspective. The dynamic must be changed.


Step 2: Change the Dynamic

Once the inventory has been created, and the most pressing improvement opportunities surfaced, communicate the findings and commit to delivering a realistic set of improvements; and be sure to deliver them. Acknowledge awareness of shadow IT, convey the business risks that it presents, and the reason why it cannot continue. Share a road map for addressing the issue in a way that respects all stakeholders. This will go an incredibly long way towards deepening trust between IT and the business.


There are practical ways to use this heightened level of awareness as a starting point to change the dynamic, and drastically reduce the pervasiveness of shadow IT in your enterprise. From embedding DevOps teams within business units to reducing evaluation times for new solutions, to creating dummy data for curious staff to use to ‘test’ solutions, IT can be part of the solution versus being perceived as a blocker.


But, as with any relationship, both sides bear responsibility for changing the dynamic. A balance must be struck between acknowledging the pain points surfaced and communicating the negative impact that shadow IT has on costs, security, compliance, and ultimately, on consumers. An equal effort must be made on the business side to end shadow IT. Tone from the top is vitally important.


Step 3: Stay Sharp

Stay abreast of how competitors and key customers are leveraging emerging technologies and know what those within the end-to-end supply chain are considering with their technology road maps. If the technology team is so busy keeping the lights on that it is the business bringing innovative technology solutions to IT leadership (versus the other way around), priorities need to change. From attending business and technology related conferences, to tracking trends online and through social media,to continuous skill development; staying sharp matters. By following these practices, and maintaining a finger on the pulse of internal stakeholder sentiments, your organization is far less likely to be caught off guard by shadow IT.