Shadow IT (aka Doing What IT Won’t/Can’t)

Shadow IT has been defined by George Spafford in his article titled The Dangers that Lurk Behind Shadow IT as:

…groups providing information technology solutions outside of the formal IT organization. Their existence is due to groups thinking they can do things cheaper and/or better than the formal IT group.Also, it may be that the formal group can’t meet their service requirements or the formal group is forced to develop generic applications in an attempt to meet the needs of everyone and controlling costs versus customizing applications to meet the needs of business units.

Shadow IT is a serious problem in business, not just for IT groups, but for all segments of an organization. The causes of Shadow IT, in my experience, have been due in large part to senior leadership not understanding the value of their IT group.

Another cause of the Shadow IT problem has to do with those IT groups that don’t solicit input from the business users as to what the business needs are. This one of the major factors in the creation of Shadow IT within most organizations.

If asked, most people can describe more than a few ‘horror stories’ about their troubles with IT Personally, I’ve had quite a number of run-ins with IT groups that have left me wondering who they really worked for….our organization or our competitor. A few examples:

  • The IT department of a very large wireless telecom company had very strict guidelines about the types of computers that were allowed on their network. A policy of this nature is understandable if the business needs of the company are considered prior to implementing this policy. Engineers, working with their managers, approached IT to ask that a new type of machine be supported so that they could run their engineering software. The request was denied by IT since they only reviewed new computers at the end of the Fiscal year. As it turns out, engineers within this company had to buy, install and support an entire ‘shadow’ network of computers in order to run the software that they needed to run (the software required very high-performance computers).
  • When users within an office of a very large contract manufacturing company needed IT support, they were not able to contact the local IT person who worked with them in the same building, but were required to call a toll-free number that was routed to an IT helpdesk. The helpdesk would then log a ticket and try to help the user, which invariably didn’t resolve the problem. The user would then be told that the local IT rep would be assigned the ticket. After what was usually at least an hour of dealing with the outsourced IT staff, the user would finally be allowed to talk to the local IT rep who would then fix their problem within a few minutes. Eventually, the staff began to ignore the IT helpdesk completely and would resolve their own problems and would even call in an outside IT support person from the local computer store to fix their problems.
  • One of the best examples of Shadow IT occurred at one of my previous employers. Our IT department was outsourced to a large IT firm, who was very responsive to our needs…for the most part. The contract with the IT firm had been negotiated and agreed to without any input from the actual users or departments that would be supported. Since the group that I managed was a software support group, we had a need for quite a number of different computers with different configurations, but none of this information was ever captured in the contract. When it came time to get a few more computers to match the configuration of our new clients’ PC’s, were were told that the contract didn’t allow it and despite my efforts, we were never able to get new PC’s through the IT group…we had to purchase them ourselves and support them ourselves. Shadow IT at its finest.

How do we solve the Shadow IT problem? Mike Schaffner over at Beyond Blinking Lights and Acronyms has a few ideas. In a post titled Shadow IT Revisited, he writes:

The bottom line is we have to figure out a way to provide needed user services while meeting the legitimate IT concerns or the users will by-pass IT and do it on their own.

Mike is right. IT needs to be able to provide services to the business that force the business to never have to think about IT…don’t give IT users the opportunity or reason to look outside of the IT group for support. In other words, provide top-notch support to the business. This may require additional costs in adding headcount, but it might be something to consider if a good portion of the IT groups’ time is spent fighting Shadow IT issues.

Another way to solve the Shadow IT problem is for IT groups and senior leadership to understand the value that the IT group can provide to the organization. IT can do so much more than ‘support computers’…they can provide a strategic advantage as well.

Mike’s post, which describes an article titled “Users Who Know Too Much (And the CIOs Who Fear Them)” on CIO.com provides a great overview of how to solve the Shadow IT problem and is definitely worth jumping over and reading the CIO.com article and Mike’s post.

PS – Mike has another good post titled “IT Needs to Become more like Shadow IT” in which Mike describes more ideas for resolving the Shadow IT problem.

[tags] IT, Information Technology, Shadow IT, Strategic use of IT [/tags]

  • http://ericbrownpm.com Eric Brown

    Mike said — “The hallmark of a well run IT group isn’t how well run it is but rather how well served the users of IT are.”

    Exactly. I’ve had that discussion with many IT execs….some get it and some don’t.

  • http://www.viewr.com Karl Lingenfelder

    Providers who don’t trust or listen to their customers do so at their own peril. Too much top down control, too little entrepreneurialism, but you can’t keep entrepreneurialism down forever for humans are inherently free market (capitalist) entrepreneurs. The most innovative always find a way.

  • http://gradic.wordpress.com/ Adam Pacio

    I like the name, ‘Shadow IT’. I have to say that I’ve been a part of it in the past, and I’m a part of Shadow IT in my current workplace, too. Partly due to the fact that for a decade I was working as a graphic designer, and company IT has been less than happy with having to work with Macs until relatively recently (the OS X years), so there is a whole generation of the design industry who are accustomed to providing their own network support and troubleshooting.

    The other part seems to be the lack of understanding of technology in general from a senior management level. The old guard of managers don’t understand, for example, that it *might* just be a good idea to check with IT before committing to server solutions and rich internet application builds until it’s usually too late.

    The upshot of all of this is that the IT Professional can no longer be expected to be the single-source of Information Technology advice. Nowadays you’ve got content managers and enterprise-level tech departments which operate on a P&L bottom line and outside of the traditional IT chain of command. If IT is going to combat the development of ‘shadow IT’ departments, it needs to become much less of a silo and more of a distributed network of knowledge leadership, but also knowledge support.

    Which is very plain from the tech person’s POV, but not so much so from Sr. Mgmt or within the legacy hierarchy structures that most companies are struggling to revise or retool.

    My $.02. :-)

  • http://ericbrown.com Eric Brown

    Hi Adam…thanks for you $0.02….but I think it’s worth more like 2 beeelion dollars.

    IT does need to move away from its historical silos and into a role that provides more business value than just pure technology.

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    In the business world today, companies that want to be competitive "MUST" be able to offer a very unique product, period. Outsourcing is the main key to keeping your business profitable. Information Technology (popularly referred to as IT) is undoubtedly a very important part of the company process that may need technical competencies that is way beyond the capacity of the present management. If this is the case with your company, then you will need to outsource your IT department to an outsourcing firm to help you manage your company's IT functions.
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