Could ‘shadow IT’ lead to shadow innovation?


Volumes have been written about shadow IT being the bane of the existence of enterprise CIOs. The fact is that many IT shops are unable to keep up with the technology trends in the business units they service. This challenge has resulted in those BUs establishing their own tech teams who breathe the oxygen of the business and who have double-deep skills that combine technology and the vertical focus of the division. This occurs at the peril of enterprise IT feeling at risk of disintermediation or worse, irrelevance.

One of the divisions most prone to shadow IT has been the marketing organization. This stems from the fact that marketing technologies have permeated the modern enterprise to the extent that martech has become a unique science of its own. As written in previous blogs, martech is much more than courses in marketing and technology….it’s a discipline of its own in much the same way biophysics is more than just courses in biology and physics.

It is interesting to note that some more liberal-thinking CIOs look at shadow IT as a relief valve for limited human resources and budgets. They feel if they can establish a line of communication with the shadows, they can raise the safety net on assuring corporate standards, while reducing overhead. The annals of technology strategy are littered with tales of how this level of communication has been overestimated as a backup plan. Yet there are many cases where shadow IT has become an extension of the team despite being a divisional stepchild.

What is more interesting is that some forward thinking CEOs and other C-suite executives are looking at “all things shadow” as an innovation and disruption incubator that the more formal corporate structures are unable to accommodate. The reason is that this shadow innovation is occurring without the bureaucratic baggage that results in glacial change under the normal operational matrix.

Many of us are familiar with how difficult it can be to drive transformation within the established hierarchies. Innovation may make absolute sense but the organizational structure simply doesn’t encourage it, and worse, in no way rewards taking the risk. Many CEOs understand this challenge but have great difficulty correcting it because of engrained culture.

Enter shadow innovation!

Many CIOs look at shadow IT as a nuisance, while at the same time understanding that this is where some of the most creative work is being done. This is not limited to technology executives. I’ve seen many cases within marketing where shadow organizations have driven stealth communications innovations that the formal marketing organization could not develop.

In fact, I have proposed to many CIOs that they embed marketing talent within the tech suite so as to have an intimate sense of the CMO’s thinking.

There is an important subtlety in the difference between shadow IT and shadow innovation. Shadow IT is sometimes used simply to fill an applied technology skills gap within a specific division. Shadow innovation, on the other hand, is designed specifically to embed a degree of disruption into an otherwise complacent business unit group or IT organization.

There is a very important nuance that is the difference between success and failure of shadow innovation — making sure the word “shadow” is a key element of the strategy. To clarify, one can expect lethargy if the shadow person or group becomes too closely related to the existing divisional or corporate bureaucracy. Success is largely based on embedding fresh new thinking that can communicate with the general population but doesn’t necessarily become overly influenced by it, unless of course the influence is one of even greater innovation.

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