In the Wheelhouse: Dealing with the Corporate Mutiny That Is Shadow IT

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Maybe I'm a little naive or too young to grasp the concept of allowing users to bypass company policies and procedures in order to achieve a result that's usually more insecure than Scooby Doo spending a day at the haunted mansion.


The sales and marketing department at XYZ Paper Company needs an application that allows employees 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 on Google and finds a tool pretty quickly.


They're off to the races! They didn't have to check with the big lumbering beast that is the IT department. We IT guys complicate matters anyway. We seem to overemphasize things like security and privacy. Much ado about nothing really. The corporate sales data is now being placed on some server, somewhere in the world. The company they bought the solution from gave them a password too. And 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. It's just so easy when users don't notice the difference between HTTP and HTTPS in their browser address bar.


You can see how the end user could appreciate the simplicity of purchasing a cloud service or even using some free software downloaded from some website. A user with elevated privileges downloads some software, loads it on his 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. Everyday users who are able to install software more than likely have more rights than they should. Period.


What are the potential repercussions of the actions by the sales and marketing group? 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.


Because the IT department wasn't involved, the solution the sales and marketing department 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. Maybe there's an RFP process.


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 for a living. It's their job to help mold user requirements to something not only functional for the user, but deliverable and supportable.


Security is always a factor. If it's a cloud service, then the very basic questions about encryption of traffic and stored data would be asked. Terms of service would be also be reviewed by IT and perhaps even by legal.


And that's if the IT department has time for it. Sometimes those requests will sit on the shelf until the question is asked of the user: "Do you still want this?"


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 comprised of staff and spending.


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 what 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 sell outsourced solutions by softening up IT to the idea, making it appear that users are going to do it anyway and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. "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 for 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 that 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.


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.