IT chiefs shouldn't fear the dark side

IT undergrounds can create problems, but managers should leverage such networks to find and address gaps in their systems.

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Nonconformist IT undergrounds can be harnessed to help solve agency problems by channeling their unorthodox methods to light the way to more efficient, cost-effective operations, a panel of federal CIOs said Sept. 10.

On the plus side, subversive "shadow IT" groups and operations that crop up at agencies aim to solve day-to-day tactical IT problems that the official IT shop hasn't addressed. On the negative side, they can be tied to groups supporting legacy systems that refuse to adapt to broader plans to move forward as an organization, or sap energy that is best used elsewhere.

"I believe shadow IT isn't all bad," Sonny Hashmi, CIO at the General Services Administration, said during a panel discussion at an AFCEA Bethesda breakfast. "It can be leveraged."

Although security concerns have to be accommodated, Hashmi said that shadow "grass roots" IT groups can show the larger organization where gaps in its overall IT operations lie. The groups, he said, coalesce around reaching a solution that is sorely needed, but might have gone unaddressed in official plans.

"When I took my job three months ago, they told me that I should get rid of all the shadow IT" at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said HUD CIO Rafael Diaz. "I didn't want to," he said, because the people developing solutions on their own knew the issues that needed to be addressed and had developed responses. Without them, Diaz said, targeted IT solutions might not develop otherwise.

Shadow IT's darker side, however, can drain effort away from the agency's ultimate goals.

"Do I want rocket scientists developing IT solutions?" asked NASA CIO Larry Sweet. After years of developing their own IT solutions, NASA's field offices are coming around to the idea that some centralized services offered through NASA's main IT office can provide more effective and cost efficient solutions for users, he said.

Interior CIO Sylvia Burns noted that her department’s effort to transform its IT operations to a more centralized model, which began in 2011, has taken time to sink in with field offices. But, she said, IT managers at DOI field offices recently told her that as budgets shrink, they have seen the value of the "build it once, use it many times" model of shared services and other pooled IT resources.

The Interior IT department also learned something about how to implement new IT models going forward. Changes have to make sense to users and to those affected by the new systems "You can't conduct a transformation like a hostile takeover," Burns said.