'Shadow IT' is dead, according to veteran CIO Mark Settle. It’s a term that may have nostalgic value for some, but it has little practical meaning or relevance in today’s business environment.

There are many words in the English language that have become obsolete. Gadzooks and zounds were commonly used in pre-modern Britain to express surprise or annoyance. A whippersnapper was a young, inexperienced person considered to be presumptuous or overconfident (a forerunner of the word “millennial” perhaps?). And balderdash referred to senseless talk or writing (I’ll forgo the obvious references to many forms of texting and tweeting).

Many terms that were commonly encountered in work environments as little as ten years ago have also been consigned to the vocabulary dustbin. Handset phones and fax machines are terms that are more likely to appear on scavenger lists than in everyday office conversation. No one has a Rolodex on their desk (many don’t even have desks). And carbon copy is more typically used to refer to individuals or things that have a strong resemblance to one another. It’s never used to refer to an actual piece of paper with carbon imprints.

The IT industry is particularly proficient at inventing new jargon. Over time we’ve also developed a large dustbin of antiquated terminology. The term glass house – once a source of pride and reverence for every IT group – was commonly used to refer to a company’s on-premise data center. Many centers were glass-enclosed to show off their rack-mounted assets, but locked down tightly and keep undesirables (i.e. most employees) out. Clearly this term has outlived its usefulness in the cloud mania of the 21st century. 

Similarly, application service providers are now SaaS vendors. Personal digital assistants are now smartphones or mobile devices. Java programmers are now full stack developers. Dedicated quality assurance teams have been subsumed into multi-displinary DevOps teams. And, thankfully, we’ve stopped debating the true definitions of IaaS versus PaaS – nowadays everything is a platform and everything is in the cloud!

The Death of Shadow IT

Whether we like to admit it or not, the term shadow IT also belongs to a bygone era in which IT controlled the selection and implementation of every form of information technology employed within a corporation. Those days are long gone.

Functional teams now have the interest, ability and authority to purchase cloud-based applications and services with little or no IT support. More importantly, they have the budget dollars required to operate as independent technology buyers. IT may be consulted after a new vendor product has been selected, solely to ensure that company security policies and procurement regulations are being followed, but product evaluation, implementation planning and pricing negotiations are frequently conducted without IT’s knowledge or participation.  In many instances, security checks, integration requirements and procurement rules are sidestepped or overlooked altogether by functional teams. IT staff members simply discover that new tools or services have been purchased after they’re already in use. 

Ironically, the current rules of engagement between IT and its business partners are the logical outcome of IT’s ceaseless efforts to promote more pervasive use of information technology in the daily operations of every modern enterprise. During the past twenty years IT leaders have advocated, evangelized and championed broader and deeper use of information technology in every facet of their companies’ operations. Cloud computing – in its various forms – has made that dream come true. We just always thought that we would be able to maintain our traditional role in selecting, implementing and administering information technology at the same time. That’s where we were wrong!

As a result of the new rules of engagement, many formal IT organizations have actually become shadows of their former selves. Functional teams have direct access to the SaaS applications they need to perform their jobs. Developers can assemble customized stacks of virtual computing resources at the touch of a button. IT’s traditional skills in building and operating critical business systems are becoming increasingly irrelevant in this new world order. IT’s residual responsibilities include the administration of utility services such as e-mail and videoconferencing, laptop and network management, regulatory compliance and information security. None of these topics are top-of-mind concerns to the majority of employees within a company. There’s simply the assumption that IT is taking care of these background activities without interfering with the real work of the corporation that is going on elsewhere.

From the perspective of the majority of employees, traditional IT groups are now functioning in a shadow capacity. The technology tools and capabilities that are most relevant to their jobs are largely being maintained and administered by dedicated functional operations teams, not by IT. To be perfectly blunt, traditional IT has become shadow IT in many companies. The activities performed by functional operations teams that we formerly referred to as shadow IT are now accepted as standard operating procedures in many, if not most, companies.

It’s Time to Reinvent Ourselves

IT’s predicament is somewhat similar to Great Britain’s experience following World War II. Prior to the war, Britain was the preeminent power in the world. It was home to the world’s leading companies. It dictated global trading patterns. The British pound was the foundation of the global financial system. Although it played a critical leadership role in achieving an Allied victory over Nazi Germany, Britain paid a dear price for the victory. Its economy was bankrupt. Its currency was devalued. And it was forced to suffer through a long and painful process of reinvention to become the world’s fifth largest economy in 2018 (as measured by the World Bank’s Gross Domestic Product index).

At the risk of being somewhat overdramatic, IT organizations are experiencing similar difficulties at the present time.  Traditional IT skills and capabilities are being devalued. Major systems supporting critical business operations are being administered by other departments. And most IT groups are consciously or unconsciously seeking ways of delivering business value in this new world order. 

The purpose of this article is not to suggest a solution to IT’s current dilemma, but it will have achieved its purpose if IT practitioners can collectively come to terms with the reality that the days of IT exercising command and control over a company’s IT assets are truly over, and, in recognition of that fact, we can permanently eliminate the term shadow IT from our vocabularies!

Shadow IT is dead

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