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Why Shadow IT is your best friend in the digital workplace

Shadows of walkers.

Why Shadow IT is your best friend in the digital workplace

When the pandemic struck and many in business had to find new ways to collaborate quickly, messaging platforms like WhatsApp often became the tool of choice, from sales teams co-ordinating activities to senior leaders brokering deals. But the use of unapproved consumer-grade tools for business purposes (‘Shadow IT’) comes with risks. Even the UK government is being investigated for its use of private messaging apps to conduct government business, outside of controls for transparency and retention policies.

I’m not going to advocate here that shadow IT here is a permanent solution. However, it has proven a powerful prototyping tool, and we should seek to learn from it rather than just block it.

Why we get Shadow IT

Despite the risks that come with Shadow IT, it is hard to fully condemn it when somebody is just trying to get their job done efficiently. And let’s face it, the user experience of many consumer tools is well beyond that of grey and dated corporate designs.

For example, the fundraisers at one charity I worked with routinely used a consumer messaging app to arrange meet-ups for street collections. For them it worked well – it was familiar, available to everyone, and crucially they could self-administer group access rather than having to request IT create an account all the time.

I also see Shadow IT from the technology enthusiasts who want to bring in good practices from their private life or past roles. For example, using Evernote to collate fragments of information, or Trello for task co-ordination.

Finally, there’s the ‘credit card flashing’ kind of shadow IT, where a team decides to just pay for a cheap cloud service rather than go through a drawn-out procurement process. I’m sure many instances of Zoom, Dropbox, Miro and Mural started out this way.

Even official IT can be shady

There’s a grey area of shadow IT too – tools that have not been officially launched but which are also not switched off. Office 365 has been a major culprit, where, for example, Yammer communities spring up like Pokémon and nobody is ever sure if they are meant to be using it or not.

Then there’s the mis-application of legitimate tools. SharePoint has done such a good job of making communication sites easy to set up, that even companies that don’t want them are getting them, like pop-up intranets competing with the official source (goadingly the official intranet is always called something like “ONE Magacorp Hub”).

Shadow IT is a free pilot

Beyond the potential productivity boost, the main value of shadow IT is that it acts as a free pilot. It allows organisations to experiment with new services and new ways of working that would be hard to get off the ground formally.

Even when corporate IT can see the potential of a tool, finding a compelling use-case up front can be tough, and quantifying ROI a dark art. Conversely, unearthing a successful use of shadow IT is a self-selecting use case where the value has already been demonstrated.

A shadow use case can be valuable if the organization then decides to scale-up: it can be used as an internal success story to give people an idea of the benefits, and it creates a core of self-taught champions that can be helpful in training others.

There’s a form of natural selection here too – many tools will get picked up and tried a little but won’t catch on. Nobody bemoans these as a failure or complains that there was a user adoption issue like they would from a formal rollout.

Moving out of the shadows

We should acknowledge too that there are good reasons not to let instances of shadow IT go on too long. Security can be sub-standard. Audit and reporting nearly impossible. They can create silos too if different parts of the organization cannot collaborate or use search because they’ve stumbled onto different platforms.

The best way to move on is to step back from the specific tool and ask “what can we learn about the business need here?”. Sometimes there’ll be an enterprise-grade alternative (many employee apps have excellent, secure messaging capabilities). Sometimes it may just be about education (“did you know that Planner is (almost suspiciously) like Trello?”).

Keep some Shadow IT going

What you don’t want to do is have a bad experience that brings the experimentation portcullis crashing down, such as sensitive data leaked from an unofficial cloud filestore.

Allowing just enough leeway to keep the innovation going means being sympathetic to the problems employees are trying to solve, but also educating them about the risks their specific solution may involve. Rather than ban the technology in the meantime, maybe just set guidelines for safe usage. After all, storing the summer party plans on Dropbox probably isn’t all that risky.

Sometimes, too, we need to lobby our corporate tech firms to up their game to consumer levels. If Microsoft is eyeballing Discord, I’d be very glad to see them integrate it into Teams, or have MS build their own solution that is (almost suspiciously) identical.

This article was originally published at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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