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Shadow IT: Subversive, Disruptive, and Absolutely Necessary

Shadow IT has a bad reputation with pretty much everyone, but is there a chance it's necessary to drive change?

· DevOps Zone

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When I read people who have written about Shadow IT, I am often left with the impression that it is a phenomenon that needs to be controlled and eliminated. Shadow IT is a subversive and disruptive process that leads to such horrible things as servers under desks connected to the network via a cable running over the floor or an application that no one but the original author, who has long since left the company, knows anything about.

However, IT is a fast moving discipline, and often the only practical way to understand, evaluate and eventually adopt a new technology or process is to try it out. Those who are inclined to experiment with these technologies are almost inevitably forced to do so in the realm of Shadow IT, simply because no one in the business understands the technology well enough to formalize processes around it.

I think Shadow IT has a bad reputation simply because those who tend to write about it have experienced its negative consequences. It’s true that Shadow IT does have some unfortunate side effects, but the reality is that Shadow IT only arises because regular IT is not fulfilling the needs of employees or customers.

Shadow IT is a little bit like natural selection. When existing tools and processes aren’t working, and formal processes are simply too arduous to comply with, motivated individuals will find a solution outside of the regular chain of command. While that server under the desk is a maintenance nightmare waiting to happen, the flip side is that it represents self directed business process that employees now choose to embrace, not because company policy says they have to, but because they actually want to. I’d argue that having employees solving their own problems with solutions they want to use is worth significantly more than the potential headache of dealing with an unmanaged server.

If you find yourself struggling with an unmanageable Shadow IT infrastructure, the first question to ask is “why were people compelled to work this way in the first place?” I guarantee you the answer won’t be because your existing formal IT departments are delivering a first rate service. More likely people were so frustrated with the way things worked, or didn’t, that they decided to solve their own problems.

The silver lining is that the existence of Shadow IT in your enterprise shows that you have motivated people who want to create, or have created, better ways of doing things. In many ways Shadow IT is a very good problem to have, because it is often easier to work back from a known good solution, no matter how informal, than it is to devise the solution in the first place. When you actually take the time to understand why people have implemented the solutions they have, you might find that these acts of IT civil disobedience can be very valuable.

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