Lurking in the shadows

Shadow IT is a term used to refer to those people performing IT functions within an organisation but who are not actually part of the official IT department. It can take many forms – from innocent reliance on advice from the unofficial Excel expert at the next desk, through use of work-arounds to bypass corporate systems, to the installation and use of untested, non-standard or unlicensed applications – but has become a problem to many organisations’ formal IT departments (sometimes prompting clamp-downs to reinforce corporate IT policies). Yet shadow IT continues to thrive (some estimates suggest shadow IT can constitute over 70% of total IT activity in some organisations).

Shadow IT arises for a variety of reasons. It can emerge as a response to new requirements that cannot quickly (if at all) be met by the existing formal IT function. It can emerge due to the arrival of new workers, perhaps with fresh, new and exciting ways of working and collaborating. The proliferation of the personal computer, and the consequent easy availability of consumer-grade software applications (including wikis, blogs and Software-as-a-Service tools) that could be turned to corporate use, has also been blamed. Whatever the reasons, much relates to the quality of service delivered by an in-house IT team compared to that available from unofficial sources. After all, to a busy manager, Shadow IT people offer several advantages:

  • Business expertise – “They work in my team. They know what we actually need to do – rather than what IT think we do.”
  • Speed of response – “I work next to them, so it’s easy to ask for their help and get things done very quickly.”
  • Focus – “They only work in my team, so don’t get distracted by other work.”
  • Less bureaucracy – “No helpdesk, no application forms, no appointments, no approval processes….”

Of course, shadow IT can also be a factor in organisations’ adoption and use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications. Returning to the above themes, let’s look at it from a construction collaboration technology perspective:

  1. Software specialisation – Corporate IT provision can often move too slowly to keep up with the specialist needs of individual departments or teams. Moreover, corporate IT solutions may not always be appropriate or adaptable to the business unit’s needs – for example, email is not appropriate for construction collaboration, and adapting or extending an intranet or internal document management system to support a multi-company project team is too laborious and time-consuming. By contrast, construction collaboration solutions are designed to meet a specific set of industry requirements; they require little more than configuration tweaks to exactly meet most team’s operational needs.
  2. Speed of implementation – With no need to buy new hardware or to install, manage and support software on internal servers, a SaaS solution can be implemented in a matter of hours. Particularly these days, with broadband increasingly widely available, users therefore don’t need to worry about infrastructure issues; hosting is taken care of by the vendor, while existing comms usually have more than adequate capacity. Most collaboration solutions also require little training, and the service-oriented culture of an on-demand vendor also means support requests are dealt with quickly by an expert in the software’s use. In an industry notoriously concerned with time and costs, these factors mean SaaS solutions immediately appeal to many construction project managers.
  3. AEC-oriented – Echoing the previous point, most enterprise solutions are not specific to AEC requirements, while today’s sophisticated collaboration solutions have benefited from years of development so that they mirror industry conventions, requiring little or no adaptation of professionals’ existing working methods. They deliver exactly what construction professionals want, with minimal ‘feature bloat’; an industry-focused vendor also doesn’t have to compromise its software to accommodate demands from other market sectors. It is also worth emphasising the “aaS”. As the service is usually purchased on a subscription basis, to minimise ‘churn’ among its customer base, the vendor must constantly deliver high levels of service availability and reliability, and prove itself responsive to customer or end-user demands for new software features, etc to meet changing industry needs.
  4. Easy to procure – With no capital investment requirement, SaaS can bypass budgeting and tender processes and be paid for out of operational rather than capital budgets, with costs proportionate to the amount of use. For many construction projects, the cost of a collaboration platform may be met by the ultimate client with supply chain members effectively getting free use of the system – I have met company IT people who were completely unaware that colleagues within their subcontractor business had been using collaboration solutions for years! And to cap it all, once the user has finished using the application, there are no megabytes of unused software filling hard-drive space.

In my view, shadow IT is obviously not something demanding a draconian corporate response. Most organisations have significant amounts of latent IT knowledge and skills that need to be nurtured rather than neutralised, and the IT environment is changing so fast that organisations need to be fluid in their response. Within the UK construction industry, I think, many initial engagements with SaaS-based collaboration solutions resulted from initiatives from the shadows, but, as SaaS has become more mainstream, corporate IT teams are increasingly seeing it as a powerful alternative to locally-hosted and supported solutions.

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