Thursday 20 May 2010

Shadow IT: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

I read Rise and Fall by accident. It was a thick book, and I was stuck on a faux vacation with a lot of time on my hands. It seemed out of place in a beach house, and so was I but it was a fascinating read. If I could summarize it in a few sentences, it would be: Germany was marginalized after world war one. They had foreign objectives imposed that were oppressive and yielded the perfect environment for the rise of fascism. The radicalism was successful because it brought a quick prosperity (of sorts), and the people turned a blind eye to all the other weirdness. Then the radicalism consumed itself.

Shadow IT has been annoying me for some time. But not for the reasons some might think. I'm usually the first one to suggest applied management (like ITIL) when an organization has ad hoc processes. Lately I've read so much of the reasons for the rise of Shadow IT, and the dangers of it, that I wonder how many of the authors can take themselves seriously. Shadow IT isn't evil. It is often born of opportunity or necessity.

The first common premise is that technology has become so easy that business users find themselves doing IT functions, and this causes no end of trouble. IT may even be asked to do support of something that hasn't gone through IT processes. So, this notion is sold as a violation of control. And why? Because business thinks it can do things faster or better. Hold it. Doesn't IT serve the business? Why would business do something like this, and how could it be a surprise? If your IT had a close working relationship and good alignment, it is unlikely this situation would happen. (And what is wrong with a business user writing an Excel spreadsheet with macros, or making an Access database?)

The second premise is that business users promote action outside of formal channels to get stuff done. There are all sorts of risks, like SOX, etc. There is a claim that the folks doing the IT work don't have training. Wait. What if business has hired IT staff outside of the IT umbrella that has appropriate training, and all other best practices are in place? Isn't the issue really indicative of unhealthy IT - that business would rather go external than internal? And many IT departments are pushing co-sourcing. So what is the difference? It is about control. But it's not about management controls. Its political.

Business is supposed to know the business, and in general, the experts in the business are qualified to be there. IT is supposed to support the business, but unfortunately, many folks in IT neither have the business domain knowledge nor an appropriate level of technical training. In any other business, you'd likely see folks working in a field without having the credentials or training in said field as being an exception. In IT it seems to be a norm. A lot of senior folks (in particular management positions) have colourful backgrounds: accounting, engineering, physical education, commerce, psychology... There is hypocrisy here. These folks waving a banner of business being unable to fathom IT and breaking the rules, are on a very peculiar soap box. IT has suffered from rapid growth, but IT should be a mature business now, and all workers should be appropriately trained.

Centralized IT can easily become overly bureaucratic. Strong centralized management doesn't fit every type of business, regardless of whether it is IT or not. On the same hand, decentralized governance doesn't fully realize the advantages of streamlined, single points-of-contact. So the ideal model for a business depends on the nature of that business, and is likely a mix of both. This is where the intent of ISO (and other quality doctrines) come in to play: model your workflow, write it down, and communicate what works. Definition is the first step to managed control. Your IT should shadow your business.

Given that wisdom, there should be no shadow IT. If your business requires embedded IT, that has extremely strong alignment and is pivotal in the communication channel, there is no danger of playing outside the rules. The rules cover embedded IT, and IT should be educating the business of its processes in open, transparent discussion. I've spent too much time in organizations where the IT departments try and operate in secrecy (for whatever reason.) IT should never be a blocker to business, yet to be fair, they shouldn't be yes-men either (as that is unmanageable.)

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