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There’s No Such Thing as “Shadow IT.” It’s Business IT.

Aug 30 2022

How does an application find its way into a company? In most cases today, people don’t start by searching through their organization’s catalog of approved applications. 

This may be disappointing news to all the CIOs who take the time to build elegant catalogs to help their employees find all of the licensed, approved, and supported applications in one place. But the fact is, when someone in a given role at a company needs a new application to perform their job, they most likely start by typing their problem into the Google search bar. Within minutes they can compare products, make a decision, and sign up for the solution that best meets their business needs. The proliferation of software-as-a-service (SaaS) has made this self-service support model incredibly easy. Cloud software spending grew 23% in 2021 and SaaS spending is projected to grow another 40% over the next two years.

While there are clear advantages in terms of business enablement, there are also risks attached to this kind of behavior. This is why the term “shadow IT” emerged as a catch-all for unvetted and potentially insecure technologies that enter a company without the blessing of IT and/or security teams. Potential security risks have shown measurable consequences. Three out of four security leaders report increased attacks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—with increased use of shadow IT applications by remote workers linked as a key contributing factor.

For technology leaders, the conversation around shadow IT has invariably been about how we need to control the problem. But I was recently talking about this issue with another CIO. Recalling a conversation with his CEO, he said, “We need to stop calling it shadow IT. It’s business IT—learn to support it, not control it.” 

He’s not the only one who feels this way. The vast majority (97%) of IT professionals report that their employees are more productive when allowed to use their preferred technologies. The question for security and IT leaders then becomes, how can they embrace so-called shadow IT in the full light of day without putting their organizations at risk? First, let’s take a closer look at how shadow IT gets into an organization:

How does shadow IT make its way into an organization?

To the chagrin of IT leaders, when someone needs a solution to a problem, instead of asking IT or using an corporate application catalog, they run a search on Google and refine their query until they find software applications that fit their intended use case instead of looking through the organization’s existing app catalog. They’ll pick the one that looks the best from what they can find online and then sign up for a free trial to test it out. Maybe they’ll ask their peers if anyone else is using this new application. If they like the results, maybe they even start sharing it with others in their business unit. Over time, the application generates a groundswell of support within the organization.

Eventually, the new application makes its way to an IT Business Partner.  And the business unit tells IT that they want to move forward with this new application in their department. “We’d like to buy this application for our team. Can you support this?” There are three possible outcomes at this point…

  1. IT says, “Oh yeah, we already have licenses for that and we’d love to get you set up.” And we absolutely would support you because the biggest challenge we have in technology isn’t building things, it’s getting people to use them. Adoption is always the problem—so this solves your adoption problems. This is the Nirvana outcome. 
  2. The business unit finds a tool that solves a problem that hasn’t been solved yet. That’s an opportunity to learn and ask questions: “What problem are you trying to solve? Let me understand it better because it could be a problem that other people in the company also have.” Maybe this tool could become reusable or re-deployable across multiple business units. It presents an opportunity.
  3. IT already has a solution for that specific business problem—but it’s not the tool the business unit wants. So now it becomes about who has the better solution—and often there’s emotional attachment to contend with. If the business unit has fallen in love with the tool they found and tested, that can lead to conflict. This is the worst outcome.

The last thing you want is to run into that third scenario, and the best way to avoid that is to be proactive early on in the process. This way, the apps in use at least have the proper controls around them so IT has proper visibility. That said, there are also options to better coach the business unit to utilize available tools. 

How can you solve for these issues Internally?

One way you can solve this issue is by encouraging people to use the tools you already have through coaching. If we already know users are turning to Google first before the app catalog, we can coach them to utilize the tools we already have at our disposal to help with whatever business issue they’re trying to solve before spooling up a new one. 

This is a way that we enable shadow IT as business IT here at Netskope. Using the rich visibility and policy controls we get from Netskope Intelligent Security Service Edge (SSE) capabilities, we have the ability to coach users with a nudge in the right direction.

For example, say you already have a bulk licensing agreement with LucidChart. If someone from our organization tries to sign up for their own instance of LucidChart, we can prompt them with a message letting them know that we already have licenses available, with instructions for how to request a license through our service desk.

This is beneficial for a couple of reasons: First, this helps keeps users operating within managed instances of apps where security teams have visibility and control over the data being created within. If someone spooled up a personal instance of an app, and later leaves the company, all of that data is going with them. This way IT teams have visibility to keep that data under control. Second, from a cost perspective, taking advantage of existing licenses instead of expensing additional new ones saves the organization from paying twice.

Being able to guide users to better utilize the tools already at their disposal is a key way to solve for a deluge of new apps entering your organization, and better support shadow IT as business IT.

Moving business applications out of the shadows

The strategy of trying to block or control shadow IT applications wasn’t working—even without factoring in the ongoing cybersecurity skills shortage and The Great Resignation’s impact on IT departments. While more efforts can be made to help employees take advantage of approved applications and existing software licenses with your organization, many employees will still want to choose their own toolsets based on past experience, independent research, or word-of-mouth among peers. This means finding better ways to drive proactive conversations early between the business unit and IT teams so visibility is built in from the beginning to make sure business IT is governed and supported correctly. 

While we primarily focused on applications in this blog, in my next blog, I will look at how the same issues are springing up in public cloud governance and how SSE capabilities can help.

Additionally, if you’d like to hear from me about how SASE can help unleash your hybrid workforce, register for my SASE Week session with retired Global CIO of Bayer Daniel Hartert on September 15.

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Mike Anderson
Mike Anderson brings over 20 years of experience to his role as Chief Digital and Information Officer for Netskope, having built and led high-performing teams across a wide range of disciplines, including sales, operations, business development, and information technology.

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