When the pandemic struck, many in business had to quickly find new ways to collaborate. Messaging platforms like WhatsApp became the tool of choice, from the sales teams coordinating activities to senior leaders brokering deals. But the use of unapproved consumer-grade tools for business purposes (aka 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 that shadow IT 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 shadow IT’s risks, it is hard to condemn when people are just trying to get their jobs 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 coordination.
Finally, there’s the credit card flashing variety of shadow IT, where a team pays for a cheap cloud service rather than going through a drawn-out procurement process. I’m sure many instances of Zoom, Dropbox, Miro and Mural started out this way.
Related Article: Bringing Shadow IT Into the Light
Even Official IT Can Be Shady
There’s a grey area of shadow IT too: tools that were never officially launched but which also weren’t switched off. Office 365 is a major culprit here. For example, Yammer communities spring up like Pokémon and nobody is sure if they should be using it or not.
Then there’s the misapplication 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 (where inevitably the official intranet is called something like “ONE Magacorp Hub”).
Related Article: Content Sprawl Happens: How Will You Manage It?
Shadow IT Is a Free Pilot
Beyond the potential productivity boost, the main value of shadow IT is it acts as a free pilot. It allows organizations to experiment with new services and new ways of working that would be hard to formally get off the ground.
Even when corporate IT can see the potential of a tool, finding a compelling use-case up front can be tough, and quantifying ROI is a dark art. Conversely, unearthing a successful use of shadow IT is a case where the value has already been demonstrated.
A shadow use case can be valuable if the organization then decides to scale-up: it provides an internal success story to give people an idea of the benefits, and it creates a core of self-taught champions who can help with training others.
There’s a form of natural selection here too — many tools will get picked up and tried but won’t catch on. Nobody bemoans these as a failure or complains that there was a user adoption issue as they would with a formal rollout.
Moving IT Out of the Shadows
We should acknowledge 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. It 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, maybe set guidelines for safe usage in the interim. 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 happy to see it integrated into Teams, or have Microsoft build its own suspiciously identical solution.
Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 18 years, working with companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and AkzoNobel.