Shadow IT - Good or Bad?

In a recent post about ‘shadow processes’ I mentioned how they are apt to be a result - in some cases - of departments running their own IT functions to try and bypass the inefficiencies of the proper IT department.
Well, the Harvard Business a review has published an article on Shadow IT and it hits the nail on the head quite succinctly in this regard.

shadow cycling
If I may quote the opening passage as an example: Five years ago, “shadow IT” efforts were the dirty little secret of organizations. An impatient marketing or finance manager would, on the sly, secure some extra budget money and hire a contractor to build a little database that tracked mailing addresses or top-line financials. Slowly but surely, as the little database grew bigger and bigger, the manager would wedge the cost into her operating budget. Other managers might take notice and started building their own databases.

To my mind this encapsulates the key problem with IT departments in the business. They are not responsive enough to the needs of the end users.

Of course there are numerous reasons why this can be so:
  • The need to a manage and maintain existing legacy systems
  • The need to appropriately manage funding by prioritising the most important requirements.
  • Long lead times of larger projects diverting resources from being more responsive
These are just a few of the reasons that shadow IT functions exist.
But the most telling item in the HBR article relates to the concept of ‘departmental IT’. What they are saying is that shadow IT has now come into the open, been acknowledged by the business as viable and valuable to the end user community, and is being named as a separate function within the business.

Does anyone else feel as worried about this as I do?

The Big Issue

“But why shouldn’t the departments have their own IT function if the central IT function isn’t providing what they need?” you may ask.

There are numerous reasons but let me just pick on a couple of key ones.
  1. Legacy maintenance. I once worked on a project which was tasked with identifying all the systems that needed to be replaced by a single ERP implementation worldwide. It took the project team about fifteen minutes to identify the centralised, IT-managed, legacy systems that were in place across the 40 affiliates worldwide. It took another six months, and many thousands of dollars, to identify all the local shadow IT implementations of Access databases, Excel spreadsheets and local portals that had spring up in the local affiliates. It also added a considerable amount of time, effort and money to the ERP project to understand and replace these with functionality in the implementation. This is the Enterprise Architecture issue.
  2. Processes. By definition if you have implemented some sort of shadow IT system in your business then you will have modified, updated, or created some process to include the usage of the resulting IT system. This process will - by definition - not be part of your centralised process world. It will not be audited properly and it may not be the best way of doing the work.
So looking at these two items, it becomes apparent that shadow IT as a concept is not something that should be encouraged.

However, if I am a salesman out in the business trying to sell something to end customers and that lack of IT support for my needs is becoming a hindrance, I can fully understand how it is that I might try and put some sort of Shadow IT function in place to help me achieve my goal. Unfortunately while is will solve a short term goal it will create longer term problems.

In my book The Perfect Process Project, I talk about having a single owner for a process across the enterprise. The reason I say that is because having multiple owners will result in process changes that optimise the process for a specific section but sub optimise it for the whole process. If your purchase-to-pay process cuts across procurement, Accounts Payable and General Ledger, each one of these will try and optimise the process to make their life easier whilst not being cognisant of the effect such optimisation might have on the other parts of the process. Such sub-optimisation across the process will result in lower efficiencies and - hence - higher costs.

Shadow IT suffers from the same problem. You may - as a local sales manager - be optimising your IT functions to best leverage your budget and increase your sales, but any increased profits you are raising as a result of this, will likely be absorbed into the increased infrastructure and maintenance costs of having that unauthorised IT implementation there. This may not manifest itself until someone comes to upgrade or replace your systems (as in the above example), but it will always be there.

The Solution

So how do we deal with this issue? Human nature is going to keep causing people to do their own thing in order to try and improve their own situation. The key is education and reinforcement.
If you can make an affiliate or department head accountable for the increased costs as a result of shadow IT (or sub optimised, local processes), rewarding him or her for staying as close as possible to the company line, then human behaviour will be influenced by the reward system. Good managers get paid better than bad managers,
But the flip side of this is that you also need a mechanism whereby the local managers must have a way of highlighting local needs that are not being dealt with by a central solution. This is applicable to both shadow IT and localised processes. There has to be a prioritisation process to decide where scarce IT budgets are going to be focused. If the money doesn’t go your way, the incentive to not do it yourself is managed by the reward system for aligning with centralised directives.


Nobody wants to have inefficient systems and processes in place. Everyone wants to be set up in the best possible way to allow them to succeed. But sometimes the success of the overall entity must take precedence over the success of the constituent parts.

Reminder: 'The Perfect Process Project Second Edition' is now available. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you. Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

All information is Copyright (C) G Comerford See related info below

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