Shadow IT: Is the gulf between digital and IT teams creating chaos?

Managers need to design and implement solutions that meet the needs of staff as well as the end user, says Jane Roberts.

Digitalisation has muddied the waters when it comes to controlling infrastructure.

Previously the sole preserve of the IT department, digital services are now coming under the jurisdiction of specialist digital teams who bring digital media skills to the mix.

The digital team is now firmly setting the agenda when it comes to budget, investment and the roll out of services.

But is this creating a no man’s land? And in the chasm between IT and Digital will shadow IT thrive?

Shadow IT is the term given to unauthorised hardware or software on the network.

Such solutions are not necessarily illicit – they may be completely innocent in nature and even make a positive contribution to working practice – but they have not been sanctioned by the IT department and are essentially invisible.

This presents problems because shadow IT can create inconsistency, duplication, or vulnerabilities on the network, potentially creating bottlenecks or even a security compromise.

In a business setting, identifying shadow IT is best identified by conducting regular audits and centralised management.

But in the public sector the structure of the organisation can make this more complex, with numerous departments each with their own operations effectively creating silos.

In central government, despite the prevalence of locked down environments there is significant shadow IT in use, mainly because the need to justify the business case and long lead time on projects creates a void causing users to seek alternative solutions.

However, in the long term unsanctioned devices and applications can quickly create an environment which becomes chaotic and is resistant to change and transformation.

Cultural conundrum

We were recently called in to work with a government agency which demonstrated the problem caused by a divisive digital strategy.

The department had one primary procurement goal but three separate stakeholders (Digital, IT and a business transformation team comprised of seconded personnel) with each conducting their own research into suitable solutions.

The focus had been on a design and build approach to create a bespoke java-based solution but the lack of alignment and poor business fit had seen the process falter. Enter yet another party, this time an external consultant tasked with bringing some clarity to the process.

He was able to objectively demonstrate how an investment in a solution supporting Microsoft SQL server and .NET could dovetail with existing infrastructure; a prospect that had been discounted by the teams because of the emphasis placed on open source by GDS.

This demonstrates that dictums from central government are hindering and slowing the pace of business transformation when they conflict with the individual organisation’s approach, which is paradoxical given that all of the central digital teams at Cabinet Office were put in place to support and accelerate transformation.

In another example, this time in the North West, the local council had created a clear path for digitalisation and the process had been well planned, executed and steered.

But each department operated as a separate business with teams determining the processes and technology at their disposal. Two years after beginning the initial digital project, the council had made little to no headway.

The digital rollout had predominantly focused on budget and man hours with little consideration given over to the need for a joined-up strategy. This made it impossible to achieve a working solution.

Such examples illustrate that shadow IT is not just a technical problem; it’s a strategic one.

There are cultural and political divisions which are creating chasms for Shadow IT to thrive. Divides where the working practices of departments are not aligned but disparate; where the teams charged with homogenising and bringing order to the chaos each have their own set of priorities; and, where the needs of the individual public sector organisation take second place to dictums from central government.  

Staff needs

Meanwhile, staff are becoming frustrated with the restrictive nature of IT systems and are seeking alternatives, such as the unsanctioned use of cloud-based synchronisation and sharing services to enable collaborative working, for example. And it’s here where the digital process is failing: Shadow IT is gaining traction because existing digital solutions do not enable staff to carry out their jobs with ease. 

Meeting staff need before it becomes manifest through the application of technology that can accommodate change therefore has to be the way forward. Many of the solutions in place today are inflexible or bespoke making it difficult to manage, upgrade or extend support to new applications and services.

Change is inevitable and some would argue that some element of shadow IT will always be present therefore tools need to be flexible and preferably futureproof to accommodate changes in business needs. 

A purpose-built management system which is device agnostic, browser independent and compatible with widely used open standards, can provide retrospective and future support and low-code tools can empower staff by allowing self-authoring and self-optimisation.

Shadow IT has gained a hold in the workplace because of the void created by staff need. In the US, shadow IT has been described as an IT iceberg, with public sector employees using up to ten times the number of sanctioned cloud services.

They’re not trying to best the system, they’re simply trying to get their jobs done; the problem is that the systems in place lag those available in the public domain, giving staff little alternative but to supplement their software.

As to the size of the problem in the UK, that remains an unknown. But there is a clear opportunity here for digitalisation to serve both the interests of the staff as well as the citizen.  If we design and implement solutions that meet the needs of staff as well as the end user the organisation stands to benefit from better efficiency and associated cost savings.

Those may be hard to quantify and to prove in a business sense but they are there. To realise them, all of government needs to look at selecting the right tools for the job that can serve their staff today and into the future.

Jane Roberts is strategy director at supplier Toplevel

Colin Marrs

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