Your Next Software Platform Could Be Lurking in the Shadows

"Shadow IT"—apps that get brought into offices without consent of the big bosses—gets a bad rap among enterprise folks. But even with genuine concerns like security and protocol to think about, it's worth asking: Do all those users with the unauthorized Dropbox accounts have a point?

For IT administrators, finding unauthorized usage of a third-party app on their servers is a frustration. For Dropbox and Slack, it’s literally their business strategy.

As I pointed out recently, Slack is basically gunning for growth in offices by playing trojan horse, waiting for the one department head or employee who decides to ignore the bosses and just launch a freaking Slack account. It has worked really, really well for the company, which is experiencing exponential growth the likes of which haven’t been seen in the enterprise space.

In a lot of ways, Slack is stealing its basic approach from Dropbox, another company that has convinced desk jockeys all over that it knows better than the boss. Dropbox, being a much larger and more mature company, is starting to take advantage of its sheer size to drum up some new business.

Here’s how: While Microsoft and Google sell their cloud platforms on the strength of their existing enterprise offerings, and Box fights the good fight by selling a highly secure platform, Dropbox basically is calling up big companies and telling them that they may as well just embrace what their employees are already doing. (Interesting strategy.)

“With Dropbox, [pitching the service to IT administrators is] like, ‘Hey, as you know, thousands of people are already using Dropbox in your company, and we have all these awesome ways for you to manage that the way you manage all the other infrastructure in your company,'” Dropbox CEO Drew Houston said last week, according to InfoWorld.

This is not how IT generally works within organizations, and these companies know it. The term for this phenomenon is “shadow IT,” and I’ve written about it a couple of times before from the perspective of the administrator. (Short version: It’s insecure, throws a wrench into existing protocols, and puts corporate data at risk.)

But today I’d like to consider the perspective of the people who use this stuff on a daily basis. At what point do they get a say in this whole issue?

“I Do What I Want!”

I’m definitely the kind of person who would rather go with what works than remain grumpy, gritting my teeth in frustration about a tool I’d simply rather not use. The reason a random platform lurks in the shadow in the first place is pretty simple: Your organization isn’t offering a good alternative.

I use Dropbox for just about everything because it connects with more platforms than the competition. I can create a folder in Dropbox, throw a bunch of articles or images in it, and it works in pretty much any app I want to use it in. I’m not tied down to Microsoft Word just because the rest of the office is using it. That gives me a ton of flexibility—I’ve written at least one blog post using my smartphone, the writing app Editorial, and the keyboard app Swype.

Likewise, Slack takes up the mindshare that myriad GChat windows often did. And in many cases these tools work together; when I’m done with something, I can paste a link into a Slack window and, boom, productivity.

The problem with treating unsanctioned software platforms like dangerous computer viruses is that it automatically discounts their value. No, you didn’t allow them in. Yes, they may create new support issues for your IT staff. But maybe these applications could teach your organization something important.

I’ve long stood behind the idea that productivity shouldn’t be defined by the IT department, but that the IT department should adapt to those needs as they arise. This is just more evidence of that.

Why Slack Is Beating Yammer

Another way to consider this issue is to think about the reason Slack has succeeded while Yammer stagnated.

Before Slack, Yammer was probably the best example of a productivity platform that brought the ins and outs of social media to the office. But Yammer, which translates the social functionality of Facebook to the office, has faced a pretty steep climb. I wrote last year about the challenges the Microsoft-owned platform faces with uptake, and how it wasn’t always easy to convince office workers already set in their ways to give it a chance. I even went so far as to call enterprise social networks a “chicken-and-egg problem.”

Slack, as far as I’ve seen, doesn’t have that problem. Users tend to flock to it at the first sign that it’s being embraced, and its functionality augments email without actively trying to kill it. Slack is a chicken that’s laying eggs all over the place.

How’d they pull that trick off? I think it has to do with the distribution strategy: Yammer (or similar platforms) tend to be foisted upon an office. Slack generally puts its roots in organically, ensuring that those using it actually want to be there.

Don’t Fear Your Own Shadow

Businesses often express a desire for new ideas and approaches. By introducing new software that helps them do their jobs, your employees are doing just that, even if they draw the ire of those concerned about “shadow IT.” Why discourage this when, in a lot of ways, this is what you want from your staff?

Yes, there are issues with these platforms. No, they aren’t always as secure as you might like. But clearly they get sucked into the office workflow, whether you like it or not, because they’re effective. It’s important to understand exactly why that is.

So, my recommendation: If Dropbox comes a-knockin’ and points out that half your workers are already on the platform anyway, you should let them in and at least hear them out. You owe it to your employees.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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