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There's a new public enemy number one in the land of information management -- shadow IT.

The name alone sounds ominous, as if the “The Imperial March” from "Star Wars" should play in the background when you say it. It portends rogue employees, covert operations and malicious attempts to undermine the good work of corporate IT. The negative hype surrounding shadow IT has reached fever pitch -- which means that it's grossly overblown.

While shadow IT has its share of drawbacks, the overwhelmingly negative connotation attached to it is unwarranted, and the notion that organizations need to destroy it is false.

Shadow IT is not going away. Not now, not in the future. In fact, the formation of shadow IT groups will only grow larger as the data landscape and thirst for analytics continues to expand. More important than its staying power, however, is something no one wants to acknowledge: shadow IT is a good thing.  

Before we get into why that's the case, let's dispel the most common myth about shadow IT: Shadow IT does not occur in the shadows.

There's nothing secretive about it. Everyone, from the functional area executives who sanction it, to the corporate IT stakeholders who allegedly despise it, are well aware that line of business teams are investing in and deploying technology on their own, usually in the name of accessing and reporting on data. Shadow IT takes place so overtly that vendors now unabashedly market directly to these supposedly clandestine teams, often touting the ability to bypass corporate IT as their key selling point.

While industry experts and analysts have almost universally advised companies to withhold support for shadow IT projects, the time has come to embrace the practice as one that can benefit businesses in numerous ways.

Let's take a closer look at the three most critical of those benefits, each of which drives companies toward the ultimate goal of true IT collaboration.

Increasing Technology Adoption

Contrary to the commonly held belief that it increases the cost of technology ownership, shadow IT has the opposite effect. The primary driver of high total cost of ownership (TCO) is shelf-ware -- technology that's invested in, but not widely used across an organization.

There are certainly instances in which lines of business invest additional resources into solutions that overlap those already put in place by corporate IT. If you believed the hype, you'd think this scenario is par for the course with shadow IT.

The reality -- though it makes for a less splashy story -- is quite different. In most instances, shadow IT efforts involve using solutions in which the company has already invested. By driving employees to take those solutions off the shelf and deploy them to support their initiatives, shadow IT drives increased technology adoption, and in the process lowers TCO and helps the company achieve a better return on its investments.

Rethinking SLAs

Corporate IT teams shoulder an enormous burden. They are asked to do more with less than perhaps any area of the modern organization. But in today's real time business environment, line of business teams usually need access to data faster than corporate IT teams are willing to commit to giving it to them. The old model of an IT data wrangler telling a marketing analyst she can pull that data for him in a few days or weeks, after she deals with her other open requests, simply doesn't work.

Interactions like this between IT and the lines of business are precisely what spawned the shadow IT movement in the first place – and explains why shadow IT is a good thing.

Before shadow IT, corporate IT handed down its SLA and the business team had no recourse. Analytics projects limped along, or were abandoned all together. There was a capitulation effect. Business teams dumped whatever data they could get their hands on into Excel and made the best of it. Bad behavior begot more bad behavior.

The specter of shadow IT changes the equation. If nothing else, it forces corporate IT to at least think about ways to better support and collaborate with the company's lines of business. That's something that's easier said than done, but at the very least, it's driving the two teams toward necessarily collaboration -- and that's a good thing.

Illuminating Governance Needs

Shadow IT's third positive impact is how it highlights the need for better governance and better metadata management. When you have line of business employees actively scrounging for, connecting to and integrating data, it illuminates the need for that data to be properly secured and governed. In a shadow IT world, companies have no choice but to make data security and governance a top priority.

They also have no choice but to focus on better metadata management. Teams across all functional areas of the company, from HR and finance to marketing and manufacturing, are creating reports that they believe to be accurate. Keeping tabs on what's believable and what's not requires strong management of your metadata -- or data about your data.

Metadata helps leaders understand, among other things, how old a dataset is, how frequently it changes, and how often you've run reports against it. Metadata, in short, helps you determine what data is valuable and what data isn't, and that's something all companies need to know.

Come Together

Shadow IT's benefits shouldn't hide the big picture truth. The best way for organizations to achieve data management and analytics objectives is through collaboration between IT and lines of business. That should always be the end goal.

When lines of business and corporate IT come together, shadow IT becomes consensus IT. Economies of scale can be leveraged, strategic road maps for how data is converted into information can be built, data accuracy can be ensured, and proper security governance can be implemented.

If shadow IT plays even a small role in helping brings these two sides together -- in helping foster the type of collaborative success stories that can be celebrated by all, out in the open -- then it's a good thing indeed.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  darkside565 - Seyfi