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Shadow IT - Why it’s an opportunity not a threat

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Shadow IT has rapidly risen up the ICT agenda in recent years and is increasingly seen by CIOs within large enterprises as a top strategic priority. The truth is this is not a new problem. In fact, it has long been an issue within larger enterprises. Departmental budget holders have been investing in their own technology for some time now - typically either because they have disagreed with the direction their IT department has taken or because they have felt that IT has not understood the specialist nature of their work.

What has changed radically is the scale of the problem. That technology is increasingly part of everyday life is a given. The rise in use of smartphones, tablets and related apps have made everyone more tech-savvy and eager to find their own preferred way to communicate. So it is perhaps not surprising that more and more SMEs are finding shadow IT is becoming a concern as their employees start bringing their own devices to work.

Most staff, of course, are not looking to ‘break the rules’ or cause problems for their employers. In fact, it is often the reverse, with employees using the apps or software they are familiar with at home because these solutions are often faster and more efficient than those provided at work – and because they simply want to get their jobs done as quickly and effectively as possible. This is especially true of smaller companies where staff are typically encouraged to use their own initiative to think around problems and where, in general, there is much less red tape than in larger enterprises.

So, SME staff often employ a whole range of apps and software, not officially sanctioned by the business, without a second thought.

And it’s not just apps like Dropbox or Evernote that are being widely used. With so much software now available as a service, on subscription or even for free, it’s easy to download everything from sophisticated design software to financial solutions via the internet. There’s no wait for approval and monthly fees can often be covered on expenses.

So what needs to be done about shadow IT? Here are some first steps that small businesses should consider.

  • Don’t immediately ban any application that’s not company-approved. Audit what is being used with an objective approach and then use the results as an accurate indicator of what the business actually needs. This will provide a cast-iron structure for future strategic planning.
  • Work with outside consultants to explore the products and software currently on the market that are tailored for SMEs and that can provide employees with a better experience than they are currently having with any consumer-targeted apps. For example, if you need a managed file transfer for large attachments, there are now widely available alternatives on the market that are designed specifically for small businesses and that can be integrated with company infrastructure.
  • Find the right balance between security and accessibility. Ask yourself what you are trying to protect and what would be the consequences if it were lost. Beware of using security as an excuse for trying to maintain the status quo.
  • See shadow IT as a chance to strengthen internal relationships. To survive, IT departments must become better listeners and learn to hear what people want. They need to make sure they are communicating their side of the story regarding security.
  • Recognise the changing role of IT – it should now be an integral part of the way you run your business rather than just an add-on or an efficiency tool. Is this an opportunity to transform your IT infrastructure and improve the business as a result? See it as a chance to take a more proactive approach that goes beyond maintaining infrastructure on a day-to-day business and instead use it to help gain competitive advantage and drive strategic growth.

In conclusion, the most successful outcome of dealing with shadow IT will only occur when the IT team stop trying to swim against the tide. The best approach is to learn from what the business is using, accept that this is needed and then find more business-focused alternatives where necessary.

It is also another sign of how business technology is changing. It’s one that CIOs – and indeed anyone involved in IT – must heed as it demands a more proactive approach that goes beyond simply maintaining infrastructure on a daily basis. The most forward-looking companies are using technology to mould, transform and drive strategic growth - and in so doing they are gaining a tangible competitive edge.

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