Installed by employees on their own initiative, Shadow IT is the notorious, murky world of third-party applications and cloud services that find their way into the workplace without oversight and clearance from IT departments. From private smartphones and USB sticks to new cloud-based collaboration services and communication tools employees utilize to make daily office life easier and boost productivity – Shadow IT takes on many forms. It is becoming increasingly prevalent and more often than not slips under the IT department radar.

Shadow IT has long turned into a household term. The challenge, however, is anything but new. The question of what should or should not be allowed in a company network to ensure a safe IT perimeter has been around since the beginning of IT. So is Shadow IT just smoke and mirrors?

Anything but. With the popularity of SaaS applications and the increasing Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) trend adopted by a growing number of organizations, it has become astonishingly easy for employees to unknowingly subvert a company network with a click of a button and put the entire company at risk.

Do you know what lives in the shadows of your company IT network?

Within large IT infrastructures with a sheer unmanageable number of interconnected devices, it has become impossible for IT admins to keep a close watch on all possible security issues. The risk has surged drastically, and so has the need for IT departments to respond.

Are you still tapping in the dark? Here is a Shadow IT definition to shine a light on the phenomenon.

What is Shadow IT and how has it developed?

In simple words, Shadow IT is defined as the cost of manual workarounds within an operating business. More precisely, the term outlines all IT activities that employees carry out inside a company network without organizational approval.

Not too long ago, IT departments had full control over company-related technology decisions. When the term Shadow IT was forged, it mainly comprised unapproved Excel macros or software bundles employees bought at the local supply store. Since then, however, Shadow IT and Shadow IT costs have grown substantially. How come?

Mainly, the rapid rise of Shadow IT has been driven by the increasing quality of consumer cloud-based productivity solutions such as file sharing and content collaboration tools but has also been pushed by businesses growing fond of and deploying enterprise level SaaS applications.

According to Gartner, Shadow IT management has accounted for 35% of total IT expenditures in 2016.

Why do employees use Shadow IT?

Usually, Shadow IT grows out of pure necessity for employees to find smooth IT workarounds in the effort to efficiently manage the increasing demands of their daily work life.

There are three central reasons why Shadow IT has become so prevalent:

  1. Ignorance. Many employees are lacking basic IT knowledge and simply don’t see the potential threats that come with using third-party applications and private unauthorized devices for work.
  2. Good intentions. Another reason why employees might decide to use Shadow IT solutions lies in the effort to work more efficiently. They simply want to perform better and get more work done faster. If there is an application available that can help do the job in a fraction of the time, the choice is rather obvious.

  3. New work habits. The mobile generation has long reached the job market. In today’s world, employees are used to working on-the-go, utilizing smartphones, tablets and laptops. They seek flexible tools that support that new emerging workstyle. Surfing the web, they can easily find an application to every possible tech problem and get it up and running in a matter of minutes. When the alternative is requesting an IT support ticket and waiting around for IT to deliver a suitable solution – what do you think employees will choose to do?

What are the Shadow IT risks?

Armed with an internet connection and a credit card, employees have become quite savvy in finding their own cloud applications to get things done. It is likely they use dozens of tech apps that may or may not be properly licensed or maintained, or even duplicate software solutions made available by the company, both of which create big headaches for IT departments.

Some Shadow IT examples are self-developed Excel spreadsheets, or communication and content management tools such as Skype, Dropbox, Gmail and Google Docs (feel free to continue the list). While those applications work well for employees helping them be more productive, the proliferation of unapproved solutions leave companies at considerable security risk and go against their incessant need for documentation. Without controls on which services are used, who uses them, and what limits are placed on sensitive business data, Shadow IT can quickly turn into a security disaster for your company.

How to cope with Shadow IT

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Given all the security concerns that arise with Shadow IT, a company’s natural response would probably be to clamp down on it in the effort to eliminate the threats and technical risks altogether. However, as IT departments no longer pull all the strings when it comes to servers, devices or applications being used within an organization, reacting with a rigid Shadow IT policy won’t hold employees back from turning to these kinds of services in the need to manage the increasing requirements of their jobs.

What can IT leaders do?

Rather than fight Shadow IT, companies should embrace its origins and leverage it as an opportunity to understand which tech solutions have gained traction and reached a tipping point in employee usage. Implementing those services company-wide will help mitigate technical risks and provide employees with the tools they really need.

Here are 3 tips on how to deal with Shadow IT:

  1. Keep a close watch on your company network. Responding positively to Shadow IT requires companies to understand which technologies are used within the corporate IT infrastructure. Make checking your network for new, unregistered devices a daily routine through vulnerability scanning, a widely-adopted security practice providing detailed information about whether unknown devices are used in the network. This will help you find out whether Shadow IT runs rampant inside your company.

  2. Find out what your employees need. Monitoring your company network is one thing. Making use of that valuable information is another. Knowing which devices your employees use and what sort of applications they frequently work with is an accurate indicator of what tools they actually need to carry out their tasks efficiently. Rather than being technology-led, ensure that future implementations focus on the user and reflect real business needs.
  3. Adjust to your employees’ demands. Today, employees work across different locations, various platforms, and a range of mobile devices. If you don’t provide easy-to-use software solutions that allow employees to access business content on-the-go, your employees will find other, less cumbersome applications to work remotely - beyond the awareness and monitoring of IT. This jeopardizes sensitive business data. To reduce that risk, you need to provide secure, IT-controlled cloud solutions that make employees want to work within approved software environment.

Templafy is one of these. By enabling employees to access company templates, presentations, best practice content, and other business-relevant documents from any device in one unified platform, Templafy ensures a seamless and secure software experience that helps users be more productive with less frustration.