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In the old days, all roads led to the IT department. When it came to selecting and implementing enterprise or departmental software, IT managers called the shots, and business users followed. Sure, IT would listen to users and document their requirements. But then they would go off and disappear for a while, then come back with a brand new application. Sometimes the application was built right from scratch, in house. Other times it was purchased as a package from a vendor and installed and incorporated into the business.

These days, IT is being left out of a lot of technology purchase decisions. A great deal of IT spending no longer flows through the IT department – instead, it is being seen across various lines of business, from marketing to finance. Many call this phenomenon “shadow IT,” but perhaps shadow isn’t a good word for it, because it doesn’t reside in the shadows – it’s front and center and in the spotlight, where and when business users need it. Perhaps a better term is “bring your own application,” or BYOA.

With the widespread availability of cloud applications for both mobile and PC environments, business users are securing the applications they need with a single credit-card transaction – if there’s even a cost at all. If users want to work on documents with members of a team, they can call on Google Docs. They can tap into DropBox when they need to store documents. They can use TripIt for organizing business trips. They can employ Gantter to oversee project management. The list goes on and on – and these are just the personal productivity apps.

Business end users are increasingly buying their own enterprise-level applications as well. Marketing departments are a vivid example of how a parallel IT department is evolving alongside the “official” IT function. Marketers now take advantage of services from the likes of Salesforce.com, Amazon Web Services and YouTube to organize targeted marketing efforts and reach customer groups.  

The question is, is this paving the way to an explosion of innovation, or just an explosion in budgets and complexity? Does it make sense to have different IT organizations within the same enterprise, competing with each other — for resources, and for executive support?

BYOA is becoming the norm as end-users bring their own solutions into the workplace. It ultimately becomes IT’s problem. IT is called to come in and clean up the mess – especially when data is lost or stolen, or a site goes down, or end-users have log-in or access issues.

Here are some ways IT managers can get out ahead of this trend, providing support and a shared service structure that will serve their business users:

Follow the business, not vice versa. Business users know what tools and technologies work best for their jobs, it’s up to IT to stay aware and support the applications that come into the enterprise.

Work closely and incrementally with business leaders and end users. There often is a gap between the chief information and chief marketing officers, for example. Both sides need to work toward supporting their budding digital enterprise. Techniques learned on the IT side – such as Agile development, in which software is planned in close coordination between business and IT employees, and rolled out incrementally – need to be employed.

Offer services comparable to cloud-based services. Call it the “Amazonification” of enterprise IT. Corporate applications should be as easily accessible and available – and even look like – cloud-based applications. There are some types of services corporate IT can’t, and shouldn’t, try to replicate. But there are many others that are secure and custom-tailored to unique corporate requirements or processes.

The rise of shadow IT needn’t be seen as a threat to IT departments. Rather, it’s an opportunity to elevate the role of IT in the business. With so many non-technical business users and departments adopting their own technologies on a massive scale to improve their jobs and performance, there’s a need for well-versed experts who can speak both business and tech. This is a golden opportunity for IT professionals to become consultants and advisers to their businesses, providing essential guidance and leadership on technology selection, deployment and upkeep – whether it comes from outside or from the organization’s own data center.