If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you are forgiven for thinking ‘Shadow IT’ might refer to something ominous, something a bit ‘Dark Webby’. After all, things that move and operate in the shadows are rarely wholesome. Camel spiders, for example, live most of their lives in whatever shadows they can find, and if you’ve ever Google-imaged ‘camel spider’, then you too have had to discard the charred remains of a laptop you had no option but to set fire to.

‘Shadow IT’ is a little less MI5 provoking.

Essentially, it refers to the dethroning of the IT department as the primary dictators of tech strategy and investment. In the past, all ICT applications and software would’ve been procured, installed, and managed by the guys whose job it is to ask you if you’ve tried switching off and back on again, regardless of the hardware, or the problem with it. But as applications and software have become both cheap and abundant, individuals and departments have increasingly begun taking matters into their hands.

The origins of Shadow IT

To understand the benefits, pitfalls, and future of Shadow IT, it’s necessary to explore its origins. The general consensus is that it emerged as a concept with the trend towards BYOD (bring your own device) working practices. Employees, in executing their role, would use and share various pre-installed applications and software not formally approved by the organisation, and before long, whole departments were using them with CEOs blissfully unaware. Largely unwilling to impose draconian measures to ensure staff only use approved applications and software, leaders across all sectors of industry have had to accept that it’s a practice that is to be managed rather than controlled. Indeed, leaders began to see the rationale in letting departments choose their own applications and software. After all, a sales division is better placed to decide the best-fit sales tech for their needs and ambitions, than a basement-dwelling IT department (no offence IT departments). Indeed, the growth of American sales portal Salesforce, was driven not by eagle-eyed IT technicians, but by sales people who demanded slick ways of tracking their own cases, networking, and analysing their performance. The same goes with organisation websites whose design, content, and performance have become driven by marketing departments seeking to maximise their revenue generating potential.

New Order

Not the band, rather who’s now calling the shots with all things Shadow IT. Sales teams got the ball rolling with their demands for tech to support and track their results. Marketing followed suit pushing for change with website functions and a move towards automation. Now is the time for HR and Training to mount the steed.

Learning and Development (L&D) is a critical cog in the engine of business, without which employees can easily lose focus and motivation. It has, however, come at great expense. Financially, the costs mount bringing in outside coaches, booking accommodation, and losing staff for days on end to training. Environmentally, traditional methods involve transport that spews unnecessary CO2 emissions and require course materials made from the corpses of once proud standing trees. All of this for a method of learning that has participants struggling to retain 10% of all information consumed. It is with these millstones around their neck that HR and Training departments began the pursuit for more contemporary solutions.

The Technology

e-Learning (L&D completed using one or two of an array of available applications and software) began to surface noticeably at the turn of the millennium, with the industry since growing by 900%. No industry grows at that rate unless it’s offering something compelling.

Keen to drive down costs, minimise loss of employee work time, and offer a method of training that would lead to staff actually remembering what they’ve learnt, HR and Training departments across all industries have begun to put e-Learning firmly in their crosshairs. The reasons why are in abundant supply. The cost savings can be enormous, in fact computing giant IBM claim to have saved over £200m since making the switch to e-Learning and they are just one example from countless.

It is estimated that revenue generated per employee increases by around 25% for companies that offer technology based training, with returns in the region of £24 for every £1 spent on the software. As employees can pick up and leave sessions as per their working schedule, training modules require anywhere between 40-60% less time to complete with retention rates hitting highs of 60% of all content. With travel and course materials largely redundant with e-Learning solutions, a whopping 90% less energy is required per employee once the technology is fully operational, and the threat of Ents emerging from Fangorn Forest demanding to know why you felled so many of their brethren for the sake of a breeze block-sized training manual, is all but wiped out.

As enthralling as the figures are, e-Learning applications and software are about something bigger still. They’re about moving with the times, future-proofing your organisation. This is the direction L&D is heading now and resisting the change, as is so often the case, is a strategy fraught with risk. The transition is also much simpler than you might imagine. Technologies can be integrated into your infrastructure easily, and are ready to use within hours with an upfront cost you might be pleasantly surprised by.

It’s time HR and Training, time to see the light – and get into the shadows.