How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Shadow IT

by | Opinion

People are talking a lot about shadow IT these days, and almost always in ominous tones. The Beyond Trust blog wants to make sure you know about “the most dangerous types of shadow IT.” Forbes warned us about “the risks of shadow IT” late last year, and as if the term shadow isn’t spooky enough, the article also suggests the term rogue IT. More recently there’s this article from Fast Company, focused on the “secret threat of shadow AI”–that’s right, it’s not enough to be scared of shadow IT in general, now you need to worry about specific types.

Let’s cut through the drama and talk more calmly about shadow IT. What is it and what legitimate risks does it pose to your data security? But let’s also try a new perspective: what can shadow IT do for your organization? I’d like to argue, quite a bit. Let’s get into it.

What is Shadow IT?

Shadow IT refers to the use of unauthorized tools and technologies by employees without the knowledge or approval of their IT department. Examples of shadow IT include personal devices such as cell phones and tablets, personal cloud services such as Dropbox, and messaging services like Slack. Generative AI such as ChatGPT also qualifies as shadow IT–particularly when companies try to ban using it but staff does anyway.

The term shadow IT also encompasses apps or software that employees set up themselves, plus all those little shortcuts and workarounds that people develop on their own. And hey, do you have any Internet-enabled security cameras, thermostats, or even refrigerators? Those may qualify as shadow IT, too, depending on whether or not your IT department was involved in their installation.
My point is this: whether you realize it or not, there is shadow IT happening all over your organization. The shift to remote work has further exacerbated its prevalence as home-based employees seek their own solutions to work-related technical issues.

Shadow IT exists. Shadow IT is not going anywhere. (Do you want to surrender your cell phone when you enter the office? Didn’t think so!)

The obvious next question is . . . what do we do about it?
Executives often have a desire to stamp out anything going on in their organizations that seems beyond their control. It’s an understandable impulse, but not always the correct one. So let’s think about why this is happening in the first place.

Why Does Shadow IT Happen?

How did we get ourselves into this situation, anyway?
Simple convenience is probably the top reason. Let’s say a staffer is trying to work on a project and suddenly has to do one of those SMS-code ID verifications. What second device is he going to use? 99 times out 100, it’s going to be his personal cell phone.

Meanwhile, IT departments tend to be overworked and understaffed; if an employee has a technology issue that can quickly be resolved with an unsanctioned shortcut… why wouldn’t she do it? Why sit around and wait until the “IT person” shows up?

Frustration is another reason. Staff sometimes turn to shadow IT when they feel dissatisfied with the workplace tools provided by their company. They may find the “sanctioned” software and services less effective or more difficult to work with.

Sometimes technology evolves more quickly than companies can keep up. Look at the explosion of AI services. Has your company evaluated and sanctioned ChatGPT for employees to use? Maybe not yet, right? But are your employees using it anyway? You can safely assume at least some of them are.

One more factor you need to take into consideration is simple ignorance. Perfectly well-intentioned staffers may simply not realize the implications of connecting their personal Dropbox accounts to the company server. After all, sometimes they work at home, and that’s an easy way to move documents from one site to another….

What could go wrong?!

Challenges Posed by Shadow IT

A lot, obviously.

One of the primary challenges is the increased attack surface and potential data security threats. When employees use unauthorized tools and technologies, it becomes more difficult for IT departments to ensure the security of organizational data. This can cause problems with regulatory compliance, governance, even insurance.

Cybercriminals can exploit vulnerabilities in these shadow IT solutions–easily guessed or repeated passwords, malware, data breaches, data loss, and so on.

Financial costs are another significant challenge associated with shadow IT. Non-compliance with data protection rules can result in penalties and fines, impacting the organization’s bottom line.

Moreover, the use of unauthorized tools and technologies can disrupt workflows and productivity, which can cause financial losses.
IT departments also face difficulties in managing and supporting remote employees’ IT needs. I can almost guarantee that your IT staff is overworked as it is–now they also have to fix Sylvia’s personal cloud account?! With the lack of visibility and control over the tools being used, IT departments may struggle to provide assistance. This can hinder collaboration and productivity.

Furthermore, the integration of various technology solutions becomes more complex and costly when shadow IT is prevalent. Organizations may invest in redundant tools, leading to inefficiencies and wasted resources.

Benefits of Embracing Shadow IT

In my view, organizations can and should view shadow IT as an opportunity. Instead of completely banning unauthorized tools and technologies, organizations should focus on providing employees with the right tools and roadmaps for their digital workflows. This approach allows employees to work effectively while maintaining data security and compliance.

Work Faster, Work Smarter

Embracing shadow IT can increase flexibility and agility as businesses can quickly adopt new technologies and respond to changing market demands.This allows for faster innovation and adaptation. Second, shadow IT empowers employees by giving them the freedom to find innovative solutions and contribute to the organization’s growth. It encourages a culture of experimentation and creativity.

Another benefit is faster decision-making and problem-solving. With shadow IT, employees can leverage unauthorized tools and applications to streamline processes and make informed decisions. This can lead to improved efficiency and productivity. Additionally, shadow IT fosters a culture of creativity by encouraging employees to think outside the box and explore new ways of doing things. It allows them to leverage personal devices and consumer-facing platforms they are familiar with to enhance their creativity.

Enhance Productivity

When correctly applied, shadow IT can greatly enhance productivity by streamlining workflows. Employees can integrate unauthorized tools and applications that optimize processes and improve efficiency.

Additionally, shadow IT enables improved collaboration and communication. Employees can leverage tools that enhance collaboration within teams, leading to better coordination and productivity. Staff can choose tools and technologies that best suit their individual work styles and preferences, enabling customization and personalization.

Foster Creativity

Shadow IT plays a crucial role in fostering creativity among employees. By encouraging innovative thinking, it provides employees with the freedom to explore and experiment with new technologies and solutions. Leveraging personal devices and consumer-facing platforms is another way shadow IT promotes creativity. Employees can utilize their personal devices and applications they are familiar with to enhance their creativity and find unique solutions to business challenges.

Improve Staff Satisfaction

Shadow IT can have a positive impact on the way your employees feel about their daily routines. One aspect is the empowerment and autonomy it provides to employees. With shadow IT, employees have more control and autonomy in choosing tools and technologies that align with their work preferences. Additionally, embracing shadow IT supports remote work and allows employees to work from anywhere, promoting increased flexibility and work-life balance. This flexibility contributes to higher worker satisfaction and overall well-being.

Enhance Remote Work

Shadow IT can be effectively utilized in remote work. It supports the remote work environment by providing the necessary tools and technologies for remote collaboration and productivity. Furthermore, shadow IT aligns with bring your own device (BYOD) practices, allowing employees to use their personal devices for work purposes. This integration of personal devices and the use of unauthorized tools and applications can enhance productivity in remote work settings.
To ensure secure remote work environments and protect against cyber threats, Technology Management Group offers cybersecurity solutions tailored to the needs of businesses.

The Big Picture

Embracing shadow IT in a business setting offers numerous benefits, including increased flexibility, empowerment of employees, and fostering creativity. By leveraging unauthorized tools and applications, organizations can streamline workflows, improve collaboration, and achieve higher productivity.

You can, and you should, turn shadow IT from a pariah to your company’s innovation and ideation incubators.

To make the most of shadow IT while managing risks and compliance, businesses should turn to Technology Management Group. We offer solutions, tools, and frameworks to help organizations develop and manage their shadow IT, as well as protect the value that IT creates with end-to-end cybersecurity programs, ensuring the protection of assets and mitigation of cyber threats.

Let’s talk about how we can assist in leveraging shadow IT for your success.


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