Bring Collaboration Technologies out of the Shadows

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If there is one thing we know about our millennial workforce, it is that they want what they want when they want it. And this is certainly true of collaboration technologies. When that high-potential sales rep wants a better way to communicate with her customers or colleagues, and IT tells her to get in line behind everyone else who has submitted an IT request, she will find another way to get what she wants.

That, of course, is what providers of collaboration and other technologies are counting on as they bypass the IT organization and sell directly to sales, HR, finance, or any other business function who will have them. For many collaboration technology vendors, the pitch to IT is best left to the end of the sales process; and sometimes, if vendors play their cards right, the pitch to IT does not have to happen at all.

The Consequences of Shadow IT
When collaboration technology vendors, and the end-users who buy their products, work directly with each other and do not involve IT, what happens?

  1. End-users are happy and productive – until they are not. Without having to wait for IT to approve and install the new technology, end-users get what they need in a timely fashion. They are able to plug in the latest collaboration technology and collaborate to their heart’s content … until something goes wrong. Whether it’s a performance, security, or upgrade issue, there comes a point with most shadow IT when a problem arises and users call for IT to come to the rescue. IT does what it can to scale, fix or secure the application, but having not been there from the beginning, this is challenging work.
  2. The architecture is a mess. End-users care about their customers, KPIs, productivity, revenue targets and the like. Enterprise architecture? Not so much. But any CIO of a company who has been in business for more than 10 years knows the importance of architectural standards, a sound approach for integrating new technologies, and a strategic plan for managing the technology portfolio. When end-users purchase, say, a customer database tool, without bringing IT in on the deal, they threaten that architecture and its ability to produce, for example, an integrated data set. Also, a messy architecture tends to be costly architecture. Shadow IT is expensive.
  3. Enterprise security is jeopardized. End-users driven to purchase their own collaboration technologies are in a hurry to install their new application and start using it right away to drive productivity. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they know that information security is important, but they typically skip over the due diligence on the new tool to ensure that it will not put the enterprise at risk. But every time they add a new technology to the existing infrastructure, they introduce security risk into the equation.

While some CIOs believe that issues around performance, standards and security should be enough to prevent end-users from buying their own collaboration technologies, we know that is not the case.

End users, many of them millennials, exist in a self-service world, where whether it’s buying clothes online, ordering an Uber, or commissioning their own collaboration technologies, they are going to do what it takes to get what they need. The draw of shadow IT is powerful, indeed.

A New CIO Approach

So, what is a CIO and his or her IT organization, whose mission includes performance, architecture, security (and cost management) to do?

  1. Rethink your need to control. IT leaders are paid to manage risk. They are responsible for availability, performance and disaster recovery, along with little things like data security. Allowing end-users to develop their own technology is anathema to the risk management mandate of IT. But attempting to prevent your company’s employees from developing their own technology is a fool’s errand. CIOs would be much better off re-conceptualizing “shadow IT” as “end-user innovation” and providing the platforms, tools, and guidance to make sure those technologies adhere to architectural standards.
  2. Build an end-user computing platform. Some CIOs have recognized that end-user innovation is a good thing. Why should IT be completely responsible for thinking new thoughts? Our new generation of workers was born into a digital world, and some of them actually have good ideas about how to improve productivity, processes or the customer experience. Rather than bemoan the day that SaaS services allowed users direct access to vendors, why not help end-users to innovate? Build a platform where workers – in any business function – can try out ideas for new applications. That way, you’ll give them some creative space while you allow for security and scale.
  3. Use business relationship managers. If IT’s relationship with the business is poor, don’t bother with partnering up on end-user innovation. Just accept your fate as the despised infrastructure police whom your end-user developers actively avoid. But if you want your company’s employees to bring you in on their development activities earlier rather than later, make sure that the points of intersection between your department and theirs are solid. One organizational model that CIOs often employ involves business relationship managers (BRMs), those wonderful blended leaders who have one foot in IT and the other in a business function. If you have the right person in that BRM role, that function’s employees will involve him in their innovation initiatives, not give him the runaround.

We are in a new era of IT where technology belongs to everyone. This means that the walls around IT must come down. When users engage in shadow IT, and build or buy technology without engaging the IT organization, they are speaking volumes about their desire to improve the way they work. IT’s traditional approach of clamping down on shadow IT does not work in this new world. Whether it’s through relationships, guidelines, or organizational design, CIOs must find a way to treat end-users as an extension of IT, not a customer or nuisance. In the new era of IT, shadow IT should fade away.

Learn more about Shadow IT and collaboration overload in “The Top 5 Collaboration Challenges … and How IT Leaders Can Overcome Them.”

Martha Heller is President of Heller Search Associates, a top IT executive recruiting firm, and the author of Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT, coming this September.

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