The Complexity Challenge Drives Shadow IT

We’re on the edge of a precipice in the enterprise tech industry, and most people don’t even realize it.

The problem? The technology developments that have driven some of the greatest advancements in business—things like software as a service (SaaS), virtualization, and analytics—have come with costs. Not just monetary costs, but also what I call complexity costs.

Many of the tools used to create these capabilities in both local and offsite data centers (or private and public clouds, to use the popular vernacular) are now so specialized and so complex, that it’s getting harder and harder to find people with the skill sets necessary to run and/or manage them.

It’s not just the individual tools. It’s the fact that most IT operations now consist of numerous complex tools that are tied together in even more complex webs of connection.

Examples abound. Want to create an app for employees’ smartphones so that they can check the status of a client’s order while visiting that client? Well, it’s likely that the initial order is kept in a sales management tool based in the cloud, and that needs to be linked to an inventory tool managed internally, which, in turn, has multiple connections both to a supplier’s database at an external location, as well as an internal shipping tool. Plus, once the results have been found, they have to be translated and delivered in a mobile-friendly format. If you don’t want the performance of that app to suffer, you’ll need to deliver the results from a site outside the corporate firewall, like a co-located data center or cloud exchange with speedy connections to a service provider. Oh, and if you’re delivering it via a virtualized app to maintain security, you’ve got to deal with desktop and/or app virtualization and connection broker software as well. Finally, if you also want to provide insight into how the customer’s orders have arrived over a period of time versus an agreed upon standard, you’ll need to pull in data from a separate analytics engine so that it can fill out the chart in the mobile app’s dashboard UI.

Throw in the very real possibility of a merger and an acquisition or two, and the need to tie one company’s system into another company’s often completely different set of systems, and you have all the ingredients of an IT disaster.

In theory, there are tools that are supposed to help solve these problems. However, unless you’re willing to throw out every relevant system that you already own and start from scratch, you will likely have to deal with a complex web of connections. Instead, many companies end up outsourcing these kinds of projects, or at least a portion of them, to dedicated consulting firms or the services arms of tech hardware and software vendors.

Not surprisingly, many new IT projects in this kind of environment move at a very slow pace because of the enormous range of potential issues that have to be accounted for and tested. Because of this slow movement, we’ve started to see many line of business managers in organizations of all sizes start to take issues into their own hands and both fund and bootstrap solutions of their own. This creates the dreaded shadow IT.

Shadow IT is essentially defined as skunkworks projects that provide some of the services or capabilities that IT traditionally offers, but that are done without the permission, or even knowledge in some cases, of the IT department. For example, a shadow IT project may leverage a cloud-based service to put together a simplified version of a mobile application like the one described earlier that delivers only, say, 80% of the functionality, but in significantly less time.[pullquote]Many business leaders are eager to exploit simplified data appliances, particularly in light of the almost ridiculous levels of complexity that now surround them within their own IT organizations.”[/pullquote]

How is this happening? Well, ironically, in a world where the previously described complexity has become the norm, a number of large established players as well as nimble startups have created intriguing solutions dedicated to solving some real-world problems. Companies like HP, Dell, Lenovo, VMWare and Citrix, as well as Pivot3, Nutanix, NetApp, and more are creating data center appliances and cloud-based services of various types that can be set-up by relatively sophisticated end-users, without the help of IT. The end result is that non-IT portions of the business are starting to enable their own IT solutions.

Not surprisingly, many in the IT world are horrified at the mere thought of this. Think of the potential security, privacy, regulatory and other issues that could conceivably get created in these kinds of scenarios. Yet, at the same time, as non-IT business leaders have grown more comfortable with some of the basic cloud computing principles that are behind many of these new products, and as vendors have worked hard to make their new tools accessible, there’s an obvious crossing point between these two trends. Many business leaders are eager to exploit this convergence, particularly in light of the almost ridiculous levels of complexity that now surround them within their own IT organizations.

Many established IT vendors as well as IT departments themselves painted themselves into this complexity corner over the last 10-15 years, and the big question now is, how do they get out of it? The truth is there is no easy answer, and as long as companies continue to depend on any older, legacy systems, these kinds of complexity challenges will continue to exist.

But forward-looking CIOs who are willing to take some risks and re-architect some of their systems can potentially benefit from these new simplified data appliances in a number of ways. Only then can they step back from the edge that’s looming before them.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

11 thoughts on “The Complexity Challenge Drives Shadow IT”

  1. For so many of us that have had our real business needs either discounted or treated with contempt by tyranical IT departments, all I can think is “it’s about time.” I’ve loved having recent conversations alone the lines of.. “You’re not allowed to do that [filling a real business need] on the company computer!” “I’m using my own iPad.” “Well then you can’t do it on the company network!” “I’m using my own LTE connection.” To re-use an old censorship aphorism, real business needs see IT department interference as damage, and route around it.

    1. Very true.
      And yet, if what we’re doing is dangerous/unethical/illegal in some way (say, carrying a copy a a clients database) or simply ends up having negative consequences (say your iPad gets stolen, and with it what is necessary to steal the identity/empty the bank account of a few thousand users/customers/employees) the company might still be liable for our actions, and/or will have to step up and own the issue + try and do damage control and compensate the clients. Plus disgruntled ex-employees love to use such shenanigans as bargaining chips.
      Even simple stuff, like doing your own on-the-side backups, which I tend to do because I’m paranoid, can have consequences.

      1. You make my point for me better than I could have myself. IT’s blanket assumption is that we’re a herd of bleating imbeciles that are too stupid to not take the idiotic risks you describe: in short, we simply can’t be trusted with IT toys or we’ll just break them and burn the house down. Le sigh.

        1. I think IT’s issues is that some may be competent, but one incompetent is enough.
          I know I wouldn’t sign a disclaimer making me liable for any damage caused by my doing professional stuff on a personal device ?

  2. It’s funny how IT replicates life. Is a glacial, centrally-controlled IT USSR worse than a free-for all bazaar ? Is the job to be done more important than how you do it ? Is hell hot or cold ?

    1. Yeah, it’s a bit of a sticky wicket for sure….The problem is when things get so complex, there have got to be some new answers developed and I think that’s what we’re starting to see.

  3. @bobodonnell:disqus – do you see the situation you describe as a trigger for a lot of disruptive innovation ?

  4. Traditional IT needs to die. There is a need for IT but none of the people in your current IT department have the right skills. If your IT department things Microsoft System Center and Azure are a “good idea” then you need to fire them all because they have no clue.

    I’m not going to say what they need to know because knowing that is how I make all my money.

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