Feeling Our Way: The Darkest Corner of Shadow IT

I had just about started my workday yesterday and a friend’s message popped into my Wickr app. “Kik Messenger is shutting down….” As I read the story, the first thing that came to mind was an amusing quote which I think could be attributed to Captain Obvious: “It’s hard to make money with a free product.” I hear you, Captain. Building software and online services isn’t easy—especially if you’re not selling your user info.

Then I wondered if the news was sending a shockwave through the enterprise. Why there? Because like it or not, your employees use things like Kik to get work done. But it’s not an enterprise tool, you say? So what. It’s free, and it’s just a download away.

So lives shadow IT, the underground technology toolshed of the modern workforce that can only be seen from the bottom up in an organization. Leadership is blind to it because, from their perspective, there are rules, the rules make sense, and the rules should be followed. Down in the trenches, though, people need to get things done, and while they respect the rules, it’s the mission they really believe in. They can see all three colors (black, white, and gray) and they’re ok working in the gray if it’s easier and gets the job done. So, when it comes to this workforce, unless leadership is proactively assessing and addressing its needs—from a bottom-up perspective—it will go to the toolshed. But will we leaders always be happy with what it comes out with? Not likely.

You might question how often in my career have I been allowed to decide how to protect my work-related data. Let me think. Never! It was never up to me. Every organization wants to employ ranks of creative problem solvers, but no organization typically encourages creativity when it comes to how to secure the enterprise. We want uniformity for important things. Perhaps in the past, leadership could simply set a policy mandate and force compliance. But not anymore. Not since a billion personal devices have flooded the workplace; a BYOD revolution was fought and a clear victor emerged.

The Kik story hits home to me because it’s about messaging, somewhere I’ve worked so hard and which, in my opinion, is the darkest corner of shadow IT. Somehow, we’ve reached a point where turning a blind eye to the personal use of consumer-grade apps has forward deployed military personnel relying on Facebook/WhatsApp for mission critical security and Fortune 500 executives relying on WeChat to secure critical business operations. No security professional in their right mind would consider these sustainable long-term solutions. But the forces at work here are somewhat understandable. Either the top-down view isn’t recognizing the bottom-up need for faster, more collaborative forms of communication (i.e., they’re stuck on email), or the people in the trenches are reaching for better, more secure alternatives to what their company provides (i.e., they don’t want to use Slack).

The good news is that the bottom-up pressure that produces shadow IT is beginning to influence leadership. I’m increasingly interacting with the public and private sector technology leaders who are aware and uncomfortable with the thoughts of their people turning to shadow IT messaging solutions, like Kik, but addressing it in a new way. Rather than responding with another edict, they are getting to the root of why these tools are sought after and taking it upon themselves to find solutions that satisfy both the bottom-up and top-down needs. See a shadow; shine a light. That’s smart.