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In our multi-company research WebEx call earlier this week a participant reflected on the changing attitudes to “Shadow IT” – that term IT professionals give to non-IT professionals when they ‘step into their IT professional turf’ and do stuff that should have been ‘better left to the professionals.’

The Shadow IT phenomenon is a great example of what I’ve referred to in the past as ‘sticking points’ – things you need to do to drive Business-IT Maturity from Level 1 to 2, but that if you keep doing, will stick you at Level 2 – in fact, you almost literally have to ‘undo’ them to get to Level 3.  Let me explain.

At lower Business-IT Maturity Levels, Shadow IT is by and large, bad news.  First, it’s typically a business response to a need that the IT organization is not fulfilling – i.e., it’s symptomatic of a problem.  Second, because it is typically IT activity that happens ‘in the shadows’, it often does not have the integrity or recoverability characteristics that a ‘professionally built’ solution would have (at least, in theory!)  Third, given this, after a time, the ‘one-off’ solution created by Shadow IT evolves into a mission critical system, and gets handed to the IT organization with a plea for, “Can you please sort this out and maintain it from now on?”  This sometimes creates a problem because the solution was developed by a non-supported or non-standard technology.

So, typically in late level 1, the CIO goes Stalinist and demands that all IT budget and resources be centralized under his or her control.  This allows rationalization and consolidation, and generally helps elevate maturity into the Level 2 space.  In parallel with this, the architecture group gets empowered, principles and standards are declared, technology roadmaps produced, and IT architectures created.  Welcome to Level 2.

The paradox, however, is that to get to Level 3, the power of ‘end user computing’, for want of a better term, is critical.  That’s where most of the business knowledge lies, where the business problems are felt most intimately, and where most of the ‘arms and legs’ are.  And, given that Level 2 created all that fine IT and Enterprise Architecture with supporting infrastructure, it is now possible to safely unleash the Shadow IT monster!  Rather than see Shadow IT as an evil to be tempered, it must now be seen as a force to be harnessed and directed.

You can see the challenge – in a relatively short period, perhaps 18 months or 2 years, something that was treated as a pariah must now be cherished and nurtured.  This creates a kind of mental whiplash that most people can’t easily absorb.  But I believe that you have to manage through this see-saw to get to Level 3 and the business value that is unleashed at Level 3.  Recognizing this phenomenon, and being able to dialog about it is half way to solving it.