Shadow IT can be both a blessing and a curse. In today's business environment, it's a reality that every CIO must address.
One organization that has fully embraced shadow IT is Sesame Workshop, the New York City-based organization that produces Sesame Street. The 300-employee firm encourages staff to suggest desktop and mobile applications that might benefit the entire organization. In addition, the IT department continually monitors software, apps and other tools that employees choose to use on their own, says Shadrach Kisten, vice president of information technology at Sesame Workshop.
He believes that shadow IT is a boon, particularly in an era of smartphones, tablets and cloud computing. "Unfortunately, IT tends to become somewhat complacent. Every year, we upgrade our technology and refresh our infrastructure on the back end. But we're not nearly as focused on the front end," Kisten explains. What's more, "traditional IT doesn't provide users with the types of productivity tools they now require,” he says. “It doesn't help them work in a way that matches today's needs."
Sesame Workshop has adopted a number of software tools that started as shadow IT at the organization. A few years ago, a number of employees began using digital file delivery service Hightail (formerly YouSendIt) as an alternative to clunky and complex FTP services, he notes. The organization eventually adopted an enterprise version of the software that features single sign-on capabilities and other handy features. At the same time, a number of employees began using Central Desktop to handle cloud-based project management. "It was later adopted by IT and we built our controls around it," Kisten says.
Likewise, employees began using Skype to communicate with colleagues and partners scattered across Europe, Asia and Africa. Originally, Kisten considered systems from Cisco and Avaya, but "they were expensive and they wouldn't work in many parts of the world,” he says. “We realized that the employees had already figured out the best system for our use." At that point, IT integrated Skype into its network. "We created rules and controls that allow the use of Skype in a way that won't compromise our local infrastructure," says Kisten.
Not only has the adoption of shadow IT unleashed greater productivity and saved tens of thousands of dollars, it has changed the mindset of the organization. "The fact that we are open minded and flexible is encouraging to users,” says Kisten. “They feel empowered by IT rather than stifled by it."
Accenture's Sullivan says IT departments must adapt to this changing environment. Although shadow IT can create security concerns and ratchet up the challenges associated with software asset management, the genie is already out of the bottle, particularly in the mobile arena. "IT must develop appropriate governance policies, build security controls, and understand what is being used and how it is being used," he says. Shadow IT doesn't mean that every tool and technology should be allowed within an enterprise. Yet, when it's used effectively, "many of these technologies improve speed-to-market, overall performance and corporate revenues," says Sullivan.
Banning shadow IT doesn't necessarily make the problem disappear. A better approach, Gartner’s Mahoney argues, is to build in mechanisms that allow employees to suggest apps and pilot software that isn't part of the conventional IT infrastructure. It's also wise to carry on a dialog with business groups and department leaders about how IT and business units can work together more effectively. "CIOs must get over the thinking that unauthorized technology is, by definition, bad technology,” Mahoney says. “Shadow IT requires strategic thinking. It's all about taking a broader view of IT and redefining the way technology is incorporated into the enterprise."