Why digital workplaces are casting ‘shadows’ on IT

Author: Andrew Timms, Sales Director ANZ at Paessler AG

A digital, connected workplace creates endless possibilities for enabling greater efficiencies, smarter processes and innovative collaboration. According to a Deloitte report commissioned by Google Australia, unlocking the power of the ‘collaborative crowd’ can deliver major benefits in addressing an organisation’s productivity and innovation challenges. In fact, if companies made the most of opportunities to collaborate more, they would have the potential to collectively gain an additional AUD9.3 billion in value per year.

Beyond the need for a collaboration-centric culture, the demographic transformation of today’s workforce is also influencing the demand for more flexible technology and communication solutions. Indeed, a major shift is occurring with the rise of the millennial generation, which is characterised by individuals who are tech-savvy, device-obsessed and inherently more collaborative.

Without a doubt, modern-day employees are increasingly turning to new digital technologies to fulfill work needs and enhance their own efficiency – regardless of whether the tools are internal or external to the organisation. With Gartner forecasting that most collaboration applications will be equally available across multiple devices such as tablets and smartphones by next year, this will inevitably create a domino effect and bring about a whole new set of security and budgetary challenges for IT teams.

Shadow IT: Key drivers behind its rise

Employees are now more connected than ever – in part due to an expanding range of applications and devices being used within the workplace, as well as the need to be ‘always on’ anytime and anywhere. Yet, as business outcomes and productivity become increasingly dependent on technology, the software needs of staff are beginning to outweigh the IT departments’ capacity to fulfill them. In fact according to Telsyte, more than half of Australian CIOs believe line of business IT spending will exceed central IT spending within five years.

While digital and collaboration tools can bring many positive benefits to any organisation, when departments and individual employees seek these solutions outside the consultation of IT, they can cause serious security challenges. For example, staff may be tempted to bypass IT when the team fails to test and implement new systems in a timely manner. As a result, these employees often turn to adhoc short-term solutions that can present security risks.

Such usage of IT outside of the official company infrastructure or without clearance from IT administrators is what’s known as “Shadow IT”. From personal tablets and smartphones to USB sticks and private cloud services, Shadow IT takes on many different forms.

The rise of Shadow IT is largely a result of the popularity of BYOD and BYOA in the workplace, sometimes without the knowledge or approval of the IT department. In fact according to a Cloud Security Alliance study, a mere six per cent of APAC companies are aware of the extent to which Shadow IT has permeated their organisation. Further to that, Telsyte also found that while 48 per cent of Australian organisations do not allow personal applications at work, only 34 per cent actively enforce the policy.

What’s lurking within networks in the shadows?

Read more: A Quick-fire Guide to Secure Code Development

Albeit the ability for firms to benefit greatly from connected technologies, Shadow IT poses some significant risks. For instance, Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices are connected by nature and as such, regularly communicate with external network locations – at times without a user’s knowledge or consent. Corresponding with the emergence of such devices is an increased risk of each device as a potential target.

Subsequently, the security threats stemming from unsecured technologies may lead to loss of clients or propriety data, and even the possible violation of data privacy laws. This could then lead to regulatory fines and a serious blow to stakeholder relationships and trust.

On top of that, Shadow IT can also create workplace inefficiencies. When employees choose their own devices, there is the risk that information becomes segregated into data silos, as information may not be accurately transferred from one platform to another.

Safeguarding critical data in the shadow world

Read more: ​The week in security: Open season on IoT, Android as executives slammed on poor security

Shadow IT is palpably more often than not a bane to IT administrators. However – as opposed to avoiding it – dealing with the topic can actually be extremely useful in helping companies form the guidelines of what devices and applications they should allow, as well as make available to employees.

The presence of Shadow IT fundamentally represents an unfulfilled employee need; while it is possible to use a heavy-handed approach and simply ban all unauthorised tools, it is critical for companies to strike a good balance between security and employee demands – so productivity isn’t hampered.

In the first instance, IT administrators should initiate an open dialogue with employees to determine specific tools that they would prefer to use. Not only will this help identify vulnerable points within the IT infrastructure; understanding employee needs can also empower IT teams to provide better recommendations on the best alternatives to use.

Nevertheless, companies should not assume that all employees would come knocking on the IT administrator’s door to clear up possible questions. One way to overcome this is via network monitoring, which enables companies to monitor IT infrastructures round the clock, alerting teams of any red flags before it turns into an emergency.

In essence, Shadow IT should serve as an opportunity for the IT professional to identify how employee preferences are shifting and subsequently, deliver technology that not only caters to the business, but also overall staff needs and wants. As cloud services and software-as-a-service (SaaS) increasingly mature and employees develop greater digital dexterity, it will become more vital than ever for companies to implement a digital strategy that outlines and manages the increasing influx of technology in the workplace.

Ultimately, IT departments are no longer just providers of solutions, but managers and strategic advisors that have the ability to create business and digital transformation through the innovative use of technology.

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