man standing in the shadows
PHOTO: Rene Böhmer

We’re in a new era of IT characterized by an evolving role for enterprise technology experts, who are moving away from siloed ticket fulfillment and toward more collaborative responsibilities.

But it’s not just IT specialists whose engagement with technology is fundamentally evolving: Frontline employees’ tech habits are changing as well. Specifically, they’re getting more accustomed to using whatever apps and tools will allow them to do their best work — regardless of whether those apps have been formally approved by IT. This practice is traditionally called shadow IT, but it’s time to put that term to bed.

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The Normalization of a Supposedly Bad Practice

In the tech community, we’ve grown accustomed to studies and think pieces warning of the dangers of shadow IT and how to curb this practice.

But these days, I’m noticing markedly fewer such headlines, and I think I know why: There’s a growing acceptance and understanding that shadow IT, a term that conjures images of covert noncompliance, is something everyone’s doing. And they’re not doing it in the shadows.

Consider, for instance, an enterprise that mandates the use of its company intranet for all internal communications. But because the intranet is slow to load and hard to navigate, some employees end up using Slack instead. And when other employees begin to notice how much simpler communication is on this platform, they make the shift as well, until eventually 90% of the office is categorically engaged in shadow IT.

These kinds of scenarios are increasingly common, and will only become more normalized as younger generations — digital natives who expect tech to be efficient above all — enter the workforce.

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Embracing Shadow IT

The days of fighting shadow IT are over. Not only are such efforts futile and unwelcome to frontline employees, they’re bad for business.

Take the internal communications example I provided: If employees are all forced to use an intranet that’s clunky and not user-friendly, they’ll end up spending more time navigating the cumbersome platform than they would Slacking a colleague — wasted internal time that could be directed toward revenue-generating work. 

To my mind, all enterprises should handle shadow IT with a positive rather than punitive business response. They should accept it as a standard practice and adapt with an approach that prioritizes process management over loyalty to specific tools. Here’s how to begin:

  • Connect IT and the frontline: Without fostering a closer working relationship between IT experts and frontline employees, shadow IT can quickly become a practice that threatens enterprise security. While there are many different approaches to strengthening this collaboration, one that I’d recommend is implementing more real-time feedback options. Creating a direct and immediate line of communication between IT and the frontline is the first step to bolstering mutual engagement.
  • Centralize application and process management: The biggest enterprise concern about shadow IT is, of course, the lack of insight into which applications are being used. But with shadow IT now the norm, the responsibility is on businesses to manage it rather than suppress it. The best approach to effectively overseeing and managing app use across the enterprise is to prioritize process management. By bringing process management to the forefront — whether through an outside tool or internal efforts — businesses can drive greater visibility into the applications currently being used.
  • Open the door to change: Above all, enterprises should approach app management with an adaptive and open mindset. If it turns out that App B is the popular favorite over the company-suggested App A, then perhaps App B should become the new company suggestion.

The time has come to accept shadow IT and eliminate the term. That acceptance takes planning, but it’s planning that will yield significant long-term results, improving employee satisfaction and driving bottom-line productivity.

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