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What Is Shadow IT, And Why Does It Matter?

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If you run an in-house network, you know that having the right IT service can be immensely helpful. Securing both your machines and your data is extremely important. Unfortunately, well-meaning or negligent employees can sometimes endanger even the best networks by overriding security measures. This is called shadow IT, and it's quickly becoming a major source of issues in many corporations. In this article, you'll learn exactly why it's a problem and how you can better manage it.

 What Exactly Is Shadow IT?

A relatively new term, shadow IT refers to any IT-related action taken by employees who simply don't have the knowledge or permission to do so. This can be as simple as using a proxy website to access Facebook or personal email, or it may be as advanced as an employee attempting to replace a broken hard drive on their own. It also includes the installation of unapproved software and apps or the adjustment of settings.

Essentially, any change to any system on the network by someone who doesn't have the expertise and permission to do so is considered shadow IT.

Why is Shadow IT a Problem?

The simplest way to sum up why shadow IT is a problem is to say that employees who engage in it are working blind. The majority of people who work for a corporation aren't trained with the information needed to make changes and adjustments safely. Even if an employee has past training, they may not have intimate knowledge of the specific setup used by your business. This is the main reason businesses hire IT specialists--for their specialized, pinpointed knowledge. 

Shadow IT can be directly problematic for a broad variety of reasons. It may open your network to:

  • Viruses
  • Intrusion
  • Imbalanced resources
  • Compatibility conflicts
  • Bugs
  • Hardware and software failures

All of these can have long-standing, devastating effects in one way or another.

An Example of How Shadow IT Hurts Your Business

While most employees who engage in shadow IT feel that they are coming up with an easy solution to a perceived problem, the truth may be much different. Have a look at this example:

An employee is frustrated by the fact that email simply takes too long to reach coworkers. Left with the choice to use email to communicate or walk back and forth to desks, they install messenger software to the system. Unbeknownst to her, the download contains a trojan virus that opens up the entire network to intrusion. The residual problems that occur cost the company thousands.

The employee, confused and guilty, feels terrible because she thought what she was doing was making a positive change to help productivity.

While intrusion is a major concern, system and network efficiency is also a serious complaint. Most computers--and for that matter, the networks they reside on themselves--are balanced just right to handle an estimated workload. When your system's workload spikes without notice, it's common to see an overall slowdown or even failure. 

Here's a second example:

An employee wants to play music while he works, but the IT department has blocked a popular video and music streaming service. He circumvents this by using a proxy website, feeling that his desire to listen to music is innocent and the website is innocuous. While this is true, he doesn't consider the sheer amount of bandwidth required to stream music. Suddenly, everyone on the network starts to experience internet timeouts and slowdowns--these are caused by the higher amount of bandwidth needed to stream music.

This can result in your IT department struggling to find the source of the unknown issue, wasting precious time, resources, and even billable hours on IT services.

How Can Businesses Best Handle Shadow IT Issues?

Firstly, recognize that your employees generally aren't trying to be malicious by engaging in shadow IT. One of the best ways you can prevent problems from occurring is to bring it out of the shadows. Provide ways for your employees to have their concerns heard in a timely manner.

Remember that the core theory here is that all shadow IT occurs because of a perceived problem with some area of the system:

  • Employees are so restricted on their systems that they have no way to relax and recreate during breaks
  • Systems are slow, glitchy, buggy, or confusing to use on an as-is basis
  • Software, apps, or tools do a poor job of handling day-to-day tasks
  • Communication software is confusing, time-consuming, and difficult to use for quick results

The term, "be a shepherd, not a sheepdog" is the best way to think when moving forward. You want to guide your employees, not control them. To start with, have your IT team create secure ways for employees to access the Internet while on breaks. Then, ensure that you have an open-door policy for those who want to lodge complaints or make suggestions. Your employees are the best beta testers you'll ever have—they work on the front lines and use each system every single day. Listening to them can help you to find solutions much more quickly.

Having a no-secrets-here workplace that responds to the needs of workers will ensure that no one feels as if they have to "take justice into their own hands. This can reduce the incidence of Shadow IT and help to find safe, secure ways to meet everyone's needs. For questions about this or any other IT-related issue, contact your local IT service today.