Disrupting Shadow IT

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IT needs to put their foot down to force enough tension for change.

Elements of the sales and marketing department at XYZ Paper Company need an application that allows them to more effectively manage promotions. Ideally, they want to be able to cross-reference those promotions with sales results to show ROI. It sounds simple enough: Instead of going to their IT department with a request to facilitate the business requirement, the sales and marketing department searches Google and finds the application of their dreams very quickly. Great news! It's provided by a cloud computing vendor who can be the one stop shop for sales, support, and consultation for a low monthly fee.

They're off to the races! They didn't have to check with the big lumbering beast that is the IT department. The IT department tends to complicate matters, overemphasizing things like security and privacy. Corporate policy only matters when it's enforced anyway, and since nobody will know about it until the first invoice reaches the accounting team, there's little worry that anyone from IT will want to stick their noses in it.

Fast forward.

The corporate sales data is now being placed on some server, somewhere in the world. Nobody knows. Not even the cloud vendor.

The cloud vendor has set up everyone with a user ID and a password. They didn't force the users to change it and won't in the future. They just had to bookmark the website and cache the password in their browser. No concerns about having to worry about corporate password policies or whether the website they're logging into is encrypted. Of course, the cloud vendor would make sure that the security certificate isn't weak and out of date. Also the vendor would ensure that the ciphers accepted by their web server aren't any of the ones that have been broken years ago and now recently cracked by a few rentable cores and a few hours worth of programmatic effort.

At this point, the IT department gets wind because the users want to sync their credentials with their corporate domain credentials.

Uh oh. Now IT wants to know things. Here's where the honeymoon ends and reality begins. Luckily, XYZ IT caught things before they could escalate any further.

You can see how the end user could appreciate the simplicity of purchasing a cloud service or even using some free downloaded software. It's easy, and everyone's heard the mantra “everyone is going to the cloud.” A user with elevated privileges downloads some software and loads it on their computer and anyone else's who wants it. That happens from time to time if allowed, but it's almost entirely preventable with proper security mechanisms in place.

What are the potential repercussions of the actions by the sales and marketing group of XYZ Paper Company? The list is long and wide, and we all have horror stories about a rogue application that IT had to inherit because a user put something in production that was adopted widely, turned into a “must have,” and then became a monster the users couldn't control, support, or maintain.

Since the IT department wasn't involved, then the solution the sales and marketing department had implemented didn't go through the normal vetting process. What process is that? For starters, perhaps the purchasing department has rules regarding software or services procurement. Is there an IT policy that needs consultation? Most likely.

For starters, the IT department would check vendor reputation, talk to other customers about their experiences, and then look for comparative solutions based on the specifications given by their customer, in this case the sales and marketing people. Initial specifications are usually questioned, with guidance by the IT department to enhance the requirements to meet shop standards. IT after all does systems management for a living. They weigh the options to build or buy. It's their job to help mold requirements to something not only functional for the user, but deliverable and supportable, while falling in the parameters defined within the organizational rules.

Security is always a factor. If it's a cloud service, then the very basic questions about encryption of traffic and data on disk would be asked. Physical location of the servers matters, especially for U.S.-based organizations. Terms of service would also be reviewed by IT and perhaps even by legal representation to protect the company.

And that's if the IT department has time for it. In the world of IT, some of those new requests will sit on the shelf until the question is asked of the user: “Do you still want this?”

Why is that? Many IT departments I speak with are understaffed and overworked and armed with shoestring budgets. The expectation is to do more with less. The less is usually a lack of staff and dollars. In tough years, we've all had to tighten our belts and work a little harder just to get by. Education is the first to go, then “new projects.” Maintenance agreements will be negotiated for one year instead of more-economical three year deals. This works for the short term, but when it's the status quo over a few years, that's when the in-house IT department starts to be questioned as a viable service provider. How can they be? They've had one of their hands tied to their feet for the last five years and expected to make it across the finish line in good time.

How do we combat the problem?

And what is the problem? Is it really shadow IT?

I don't think so. Shadow IT is more or less a symptom of the problem. While I wholeheartedly view shadow IT as a form of corporate mutiny and believe it should be stopped using any means necessary, it also begs us to understand why users need to go outside the IT department in the first place.

Why should we try to stop shadow IT? Well, for starters, IT is not the users' business. The same way that marketing decisions are not the IT department's business. While IT should be connected to the business of marketing in that they're abreast of the wants, needs, challenges, and plans of the marketing department and how it relates to other parts of the business, IT is not expected to make marketing decisions and would be reprimanded for doing so. What if the IT department were to design a new company logo and then have all products outfitted with that logo? Or if IT decided to run some radio commercials? Perfectly unacceptable. Maybe IT can pull it off to some degree, but it isn't any of their business. Why are people so accepting of this double standard? Maybe it's because cloud computing opportunists are out there preaching in their blogs that “You can't stop shadow IT; embrace it!” Their agenda is to make it appear that users are going to do it anyway and there's nothing you can do to stop it…all in order to sell outsourced solutions and soften up IT to the idea. “Just let go. We'll take those little user apps off your hands. You need not be bothered.”

They also tell you that you can't measure the amount of shadow IT that's going on. The last I checked, we had network monitoring tools to tell what websites our users are visiting. We have applications that can catalog the inventory of installed apps on company hardware. We can go old-school and have our accounting departments red flag any unauthorized invoices to what appears to be computer-department-related. Or we can simply talk to people about what they should do if we're not agile enough.

IT departments who stiffen up their backbone and stand up to this type of foolishness will—and I'll liberally steal this and apply it differently—disrupt IT. Actually, interrupt IT is more like it. We need to bring the whole bus to a grinding halt and gain a greater understanding of other parts of the organization. We need to know the struggles. We need to know about other departmental demands in order to gain more leverage at the budget table. We need to remind senior management that IT has corporate-approved policies to protect our organizations from users treading into waters they can darn well neither navigate nor swim when, not if, they fall overboard.

Only then will the reasons for users turning to shadow IT come to the surface. Those reasons, if not addressed, will be the downfall of IT departments. The problem is not shadow IT. The problem is a lack of understanding and cooperation between business units. The problem is IT not standing up for its place in a company and taking drastic measures like denying offending users access to corporate network services or turning to human resources for enforcement of brazenly broken policy. Or maybe users will learn when they need help integrating data with their new cloud friends and IT washes their hands of it in the name of policy.

When IT puts its foot down and starts to protest, that's when the tension will be great enough to force change.

Kevin Spacey's character in the movie Seven had a great quote: "Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention."

Sound too harsh? Maybe we need some more of that.