Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Rebranding “shadow IT”

“Shadow IT” is one of those terms that you hear tossed around by government IT executives on a regular basis. It’s an anxiety-ridden phrase filled with fear and insecurities.

What is shadow IT? Generally speaking it’s any software product that isn’t managed by an institution’s official IT group. Created your own Trello board to manage your work? Shadow IT. Using Airtable or Tableau Online to run some data analyses? Shadow IT. Figured out a way to install Firefox on your ancient work computer that only runs Internet Explorer? Shadow IT.

Using the Microsoft Office suite installed by default? Congrats, not shadow IT.

The words themselves evoke spooky, threatening outsiders, foreign spies lurking in the shadows to steal the project management notes in your Trello board. There’s danger everywhere. 🕵️‍♂️

What if …it’s actually good though?

Here in my small corner of the public service, equipping people with modern tools is precisely what I’m here for. The things that government organizations’ CIOs and IT executives see as threats, I see as the future of how we all work. I’m not the only one:

To that last point – everyday public servants casually buying software on a personal credit card is the kind of thing that gives CIOs nightmares. (Centralization and standardization is often one of the success metrics that IT executives are measured by. Random software purchases across the organization don’t help with that. Fortunately, officially paying for software on a departmental credit card is now easier than it was a year ago.)

This happening, though, isn’t the actual problem. It’s a symptom or indicator of a more important problem: public servants not being equipped with the tools they need to work effectively. Microsoft Office doesn’t cut it, in 2021.

Meet the new IT

Instead of trying to squash shadow IT, whack-a-mole -style, I think we should embrace it. The departments that do this soonest are going to get all the best people.

In that spirit, let me propose a 🎉 fun 🎉 re-branding 🎉 opportunity 🎉. Here’s some alternative names for shadow IT:

  • Grassroots IT, because it’s led by working-level folks rather than IT executives
  • Empowered IT, because employees and teams can choose the tools they want to use, themselves
  • New IT, because it’s better than old IT
  • Decentralized IT, because it’s not run by the central administration
  • Fast IT, because you can use it right now without waiting for approvals
  • Adaptable IT, because you can switch to a different tool whenever a more effective one comes along

But isn’t that anarchy?

Government IT execs (and information management folks) bristle at anyone using non-centralized, non-vetted tools. Some of the main risks that they bring up is that important information will be either compromised (accessed by those omnipresent foreign spies) or lost forever (when the online tool you’re storing it in goes out of business).

Those are real risks! They’re fairly easy to manage, though, namely by storing information in more than one spot, or exporting it regularly (so that if one provider disappears, you’re fine), and by only using non-vetted tools to store unclassified/non-sensitive information.

It reminds me of fearful concerns about “cloud sprawl” from several years ago (2017, the year before the government went cloud-first). If you move a lot of things to the cloud, the concern was, what if you lose track of them somehow?

To which I’d reply: “cloud sprawl” is not a problem. (Not to mention that “losing track of things” can happen with traditional on-premise systems too!) Personal data sprawl is a genuine problem. If you don’t know where sensitive information about real citizens is being kept, that’s a major problem. Don’t fill your Trello cards with people’s social insurance numbers. But for everyday, unclassified work, go for it.

You can read some more tips on starting to use modern online tools in government here. Archiving information of future value in more permanent systems (for future historians!) is also really important. My preferred way of doing that is by making the information public wherever possible, letting Google index it and, if your information is noteworthy enough, having the Internet Archive automatically archive it. If it’s too niche or obscure, you can submit it to the Internet Archive yourself! (I do this all the time.) Future historians, we’re here for you.

Don’t settle for outdated, low-quality tools. Get yourself some grassroots, empowered, new, decentralized, fast, adaptable IT instead. 🌻🌤

How would you re-brand shadow IT? What name would you choose? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Postscript: Turns out, a number of tech commentators have already written about re-branding shadow IT, and the benefits that these types of tools bring to large organizations. Here are a few examples!