“Shadow IT” sounds like something out of a horror movie.
And depending on who you ask, you might find that some people fear shadow IT issues more than they fear any dreamed-up monstrosity on the screen.
- But what exactly is shadow IT?
- How can you find and fix shadow IT issues?
- And what steps can you take to make sure shadow IT isn’t a problem in the future?
We’ll help you out with all that and more in the sections that follow.
What Is Shadow IT?
Let’s start with the basics.
What is shadow IT?
Essentially, shadow IT is a term that refers to employees using applications, devices, or other forms of technology without the express approval or acknowledgment of the IT department. These technologies are said to be used in the “shadows” because the IT department has no knowledge of them.
Shadow IT can manifest in a variety of different ways, with a variety of different technologies, including but not limited to:
- File sharing apps. Some employees rely on third party file sharing apps to send videos or other large files to other employees or clients.
- Messengers. One of the most common manifestations of shadow it is in the form of messenger apps, which allow employees to chat with other people without having to resort to the company’s own internal app.
- Personal email platforms. Similarly, some employees are motivated to use their personal email platforms on a work machine or while in the office.
- Cloud services. You may also find shadow IT issues with cloud services. Even if employees only sign up for a cloud service free trial, it could still result in issues for your business.
- Productivity tools. Many employees have great intentions. They only resort to shadow IT installations in an effort to boost their own productivity or accomplish something on behalf of the business. Because of this, productivity tools tend to be high on the list of common shadow IT issues.
Because of COVID-19 and the rise of remote work, it’s estimated that shadow IT issues will increase by 65 percent. In other words, if you haven’t yet been concerned about shadow IT issues in your business, now is the time to get serious about them.
Why Shadow IT Is a Problem
Why is shadow IT a problem?
If you ask an average employee, they may not know how to answer. For all they know, they’re using a perfectly innocent app for well-intentioned reasons; they may see IT department representatives as control freaks interfering with their ability to be productive.
But the truth is, shadow IT is a problem for many different reasons, including:
- Security vulnerabilities. The biggest and most dangerous threat from shadow IT comes in the form of security vulnerabilities. As you well know, even the smallest security vulnerability could have devastating consequences for your organization; if they find an opening, a skilled hacker could steal information, lock you out of your systems, or deny service to your customers, perhaps indefinitely. The problem with shadow IT is that your IT department won’t be able to proactively research or assess the security offered by these foreign apps. Lax security standards, shaky frameworks, and incompatibilities could all threaten your organization.
- Compatibility issues. Compatibility issues could also arise. If employees start using apps or addons that don’t work with your established technology, it could, at best, result in productivity loss, and at worst, result in crashes or functionality loss.
- Compliance issues. Don’t forget about your organization’s compliance. Shadow IT installations could compromise your ability to remain compliant with current laws and regulations. Your IT department won’t have the opportunity to review them, and you’ll be running blind.
- Productivity and performance problems. Though some of the shadow IT installations may have been motivated by a desire to increase performance or productivity, the reality is, shadow IT can result in productivity and performance problems. If employees make mistakes or use these technologies irresponsibly, it could prevent them from accomplishing their tasks productively.
- Lack of IT knowledge or approval. The bottom-line issue with shadow IT is that your IT department has no knowledge and submits no approval for any of these technologies. IT departments exist to make business technology accessible, streamlined, efficient, secure, and compliant – and if they don’t know which technologies are being installed or used, they’re functionally powerless.
Why Do People Resort to Shadow IT?
if you want to find and fix shadow IT issues more consistently, and if you want to build your organization in a way that minimizes the occurrence of shadow IT issues, it’s important to understand why people resort to shadow IT in the first place.
Why do people do this? Why can’t they simply rely on the apps and technologies that companies provide to them?
- Frustrations with existing technology. You have an enterprise software strategy in place, and your business is probably willing to do whatever it takes to ensure your employees have the tools and systems they need to be successful. But that’s not going to stop some employees from feeling frustrated with existing technology within your organization. They might feel that your systems or apps are too slow or that they don’t have the robust functionality necessary to make their jobs easier. They may have privacy concerns or may wish to avoid employee monitoring. Frustrations come in many forms, and all of them may lead employees to turn to shadow IT.
- Desire to boost productivity or performance. Some employees use shadow IT out of a desire to improve their own productivity or performance. They may feel that a certain app has the potential to make them more productive, allow them to communicate better, or give them access to new functionality – all of which can conceivably boost their performance. Of course, these employees don’t often realize the disadvantages of this move.
- Commitment to personal tasks. Some employees have a deep commitment to their personal tasks and individual preferences. They want to use their personal email account to talk to friends and family members, or they want to work on a personal project without being tracked or monitored. If this is the case, employees may knowingly install apps that are hard to track – or at least hard to associate with a professional identity.
- Frustrations with approval processes. IT departments are responsible for reviewing, approving, and sometimes coordinating new technologies throughout your organization. But these review and approval processes can be time-consuming and counterproductive. If employees feel frustrated with current approval processes, or if they’re tired of waiting for formal approval, they may venture out on their own.
- Ignorance of security risks. Your employees may rely on shadow IT simply because they don’t understand the security or compliance risks of their actions. They’re genuinely ignorant of the risks and downsides involved – so they follow their instincts.
Finding and Fixing Shadow IT Issues
Now let’s talk about how you can find and fix shadow IT issues in your business.
Note that these strategies can be used, regardless of whether you work in a traditional office environment or a remote environment.
- Monitor for abnormal traffic or activity. Shadow IT discovery tools can help you flag and analyze abnormal traffic or activity patterns. Depending on your setup, you could feasibly detect when someone installs an unapproved app, or when your network activity varies in an unforeseen way. Alternatively, you could use employee monitoring tools to keep an eye on all your employees’ activities. Just make sure you familiarize yourself with employee monitoring laws in your area before you commit to one of these strategies.
- Ask about apps and tools via surveys. You could also use a quick-response survey to get a feel for the apps and tools your employees are using. There are just a couple of problems with this. First, it can be time-consuming to manage a large volume of responses, so this is typically a better fit for smaller organizations. Second, this relies on self-reporting – and some employees won’t volunteer the fact that they’re using unapproved tools.
- Find out why employees are using these tools. However, you get the information, try to find out why your employees are using these shadow IT tools in the first place. Understanding their motivation can help you find suitable replacement tools – and prevent shadow IT issues in the future.
- Explain and remove. Inform the employee(s) in question about the shadow IT issues in play, then remove the offending apps. If the employee is a repeat offender, disciplinary action may be in order.
Toward a Better Future for Shadow IT
Finding and fixing shadow IT issues isn’t enough to protect your organization.
If you want to take things a step further, reducing security vulnerabilities and making your staff members happier in the process, you’ll need to orchestrate a strategy do you minimize your shadow IT occurrences in the future.
These are some of the best ways to do it:
- Educate your staff on security. You know just how important security is – but does your staff? One major root cause of shadow IT issues is a simple misunderstanding; employees don’t realize how much of a security threat they’re creating by doing this. You can avoid this dilemma by informing and educating your staff. Make sure they understand why shadow IT is a genuine security issue – and what they can do to prevent these issues in the future.
- Cultivate a culture of security awareness. Along similar lines, you can cultivate a culture of security awareness in your organization. IT security shouldn’t be an afterthought or a secondary priority; instead, it should be at the forefront of all your technology-related decisions. If all your employees remain security conscious, and avoid decisions they don’t understand, they’ll be in a much better position to follow protocols as intended.
- Make review and approval more streamlined. Here’s another smart approach; make it easier for employees to submit new apps for review and approval. Many employees install new apps or make changes to their devices simply because they don’t want to go through the hassle of formalizing an application or waiting for the IT department to respond. If you can make this process more accessible, less of a headache, and more likely to result in approval (or suggested alternatives), you’re going to attract more participation.
- Find an acceptable path for everyone. Your primary goal should be to reduce the occurrence of shadow IT issues. But your secondary goal should be making sure your employees have all the tools they want or need to succeed. To that end, it’s important to find alternative apps and strategies to fulfill employee needs, whenever possible. For example, if one of your employees is caught downloading a messenger app because they’re unsatisfied with the limitations of your company app, consider making modifications to your existing app or trying a new app instead. If one employee has frustrations with the current technological lineup, chances are, there are other employees who feel the same way.
- Foster mutual transparency. Finally, consider building a culture of mutual transparency. In other words, make sure that your company is open and honest with your employees and encourage your employees to be open and honest with you. This can take a long time to develop, and it requires a consistent and mindful approach. However, if you establish an environment of mutual trust, employees will be much more likely to vocalize their needs and frustrations directly to the IT department – rather than turning to shadow IT.
While the motivations for leveraging shadow IT are somewhat understandable, your business can’t sit idly by while your employees put your organizational and website security at risk. If you want your organization to remain secure, organized, and efficient, you need to have a plan in place to eliminate shadow IT issues – and prevent them from recurring in the future.
If you need help with your company’s IT, or if you need a custom technology solution to a common problem in your organization, contact Dev.co for a free consultation today!
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