January 16, 2017

Bring Shadow BI in from the Cold

Written by
Ilan Hertz
Tags: Big Data

Chances are, you have “shadow IT operatives” in your organization, and probably more than you think. This is especially true for teams that handle business intelligence (BI), since BI workflows carry a high degree of inherent complexity and variety.

The urge to stop shadow BI at all costs might be strong, but before you launch a search and destroy mission, consider the opportunities you might miss. Shadow BI tools, when properly managed, can actually help an organization better understand and react to their data.

What is Shadow BI, and Who is Responsible?

Shadow BI is derivative of shadow IT, which has been around for a long time. Collectively, it refers to software tools and methods designed and used by folks who aren’t necessarily skilled IT workers — or in the case of business intelligence, folks who aren’t data analysts. They’re line-of-business business users who compare and implement IT products without consent.

When you think of shadow BI, the key word is unauthorized. Shadow BI solutions are not built, specified, installed, or recognized by IT staff. Therefore, they are not in line with your organization’s data control, documentation, security, and reliability requirements.

Who are the perpetrators? Your staff and colleagues. They use modern self-service BI and data analytics tools to get their own answers. Why? Because it takes too long for IT to approve and install solutions. Either that, or data governance and control policies create obstacles to solving their problem.

Why Not Squash Shadow BI Like a Bug?

Shadow BI is the latest in a long line of arguments between IT departments and business users. The argument for more or less centralized IT control has been waging for decades. But now, the way professionals consume technology is tipping the scales toward democracy.

Like it or not, shadow BI is here to stay. Users in line-of-business groups have taken control of the corporate credit card. They are using it to buy their own systems, tools, and services.

The sophisticated data analytics tools they buy have become an ingrained part of most business units. These apps and services are designed to make analysis simpler and more accessible to data-driven teams. When faced with a serious obstacle, they procure their own solutions wherever they can.

There’s no sign of this trend waning. What’s a conscientious IT manager or data administrator to do?

Three Ways to Deal with Shadow BI  

There are several options for dealing with shadow BI. First, you could walk away and avoid the issue. This is not a good option. There are too many real risks and costs involved.

Next, you could treat shadow BI as a threat to your organization and allot resources to stopping it. Shadow BI carries hidden costs as well as security and compliance risks. But “stopping shadow BI” is a time-consuming and expensive process. You might not have the means to bring it down, and even if you do, it might not be worth it.

Finally, you could put shadow BI to work as an engine of innovation and productivity. This option promises the biggest return, but it isn’t simple.

Why Shadow BI is Appealing to Business Users

People who use shadow BI are not always rabble-rousers. Shadow BI poses hidden costs and risks, but it can also become an important source of solutions that match the day-to-day needs of business users. They value shadow BI because:

  • It’s set up by and for the people who need it most.
    When users find and build their own solutions, those solutions provide exactly what’s needed to meet user goals.
  • It quickly solves problems and removes obstacles.
    Employees turn to shadow BI when they can’t get the solutions they need quickly enough or when they must avoid restrictions imposed by their business.
  • It gives employees the tools they need when they need them.
    As a result, users spend less time looking for workarounds and more time getting things done.
  • It’s less intimidating than solutions authorized by IT staff.
    Self-service BI solutions use plain English and operating principles that are clear and obvious to everyone — not just a data scientists.

That explains the benefits from the user’s perspective, but why would a business consider accepting “unauthorized solutions?” Because embracing self-service BI gives IT departments a chance to increase employee efficiency, control costs, and stay ahead of security breaches.

Shadow BI Can Add Value to Your Operations

Managed carefully, shadow BI can actually help your company by making shadow BI part of the larger IT strategy and getting users and IT pros to see mutual benefits of working together.

Simple? No. Worth the effort? Definitely.

There are two steps to improving shadow BI situation in any organization. First, get your freelance developers, IT managers, and business decision-makers to work together, Then, consider these processes to keep your data safe and your company compliant:

  • Develop a culture of productivity and resourcefulness.
    When you treat business users as allies, good things happen. Former shadow BI developers often show initiative and ingenuity as they overcome obstacles on their own. When they do, they are more productive and efficient and take more ownership of tasks without IT participation. It makes sense to put these talents to work.
  • Reassign IT resources to ignored internal tasks.
    We all know that the IT to-do list never ends. With local users building their own solutions, there’s more time for IT pros to work through their backlogs or design and deliver high-value services to internal business groups.
  • Provide business users with access to pre-approved solutions.
    All of these time- and money-saving efficiencies depend on easily available apps and tools that business users can use to answer local data analytics questions. 
    Some companies implement controlled, self-service options for their business users. This lets the IT staff control data and user access and helps everyone find and create the solutions they need. Other companies implement mobile device management (MDM) tools to secure and control user devices.
  • Increase the number of IT services while maintaining governance and security.
    Including former shadow BI solutions in mainstream IT legitimizes the demand for and supply of formerly hidden solutions and tools, in a governed environment. When IT assets are easy to find, their risks and costs are easier to identify and mitigate.
  • Make communication, education, and security the focus of IT support. Supporting independent developers with data security and other information can help you avoid the risks and costs of unsupervised development. Informed business users make it easier for IT pros to look after basic data quality, security and governance.

* * *

Lower labor and operational costs, more productive employees, and lower compliance risk: these are some — but not all — of the potential benefits for companies willing to look beyond the negative image of shadow BI.

Is your IT department willing to try something different and bring shadow BI in from the cold?


Ilan Hertz is Head of Digital Marketing at Sisense — a leader in simplifying business intelligence for complex data. Visit the Sisense blog to learn how to evaluate the costs of business intelligence. 

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