How Mismanaged Innovation Leads to Harmful Shadow Systems

Employees are naturally innovative; their self-interest lies with solving workplace problems that impact them directly. In a perfect world, employee innovations are tested, improved upon, and supported by an IT or operations staff. Unfortunately, resources are often unavailable for such support and employees are left with a choice: maintain the solution themselves, or go back to a less efficient way of doing things.

These unsupported and often incomplete solutions are called shadow systems, and they can be very dangerous.

If management discourages the use of these shadow systems, they are thus discouraging innovation and deliberately asking their employees to be less efficient. This is demotivating and strips management of credibility. More often, managers encourage the use of shadow systems because they know that operations or IT resources won’t be forthcoming or that the procedure will be to odious to pursue.

For whichever reason shadow systems take hold, the danger persists. Because these systems are done without IT or operations support, they are never documented into process flowcharts or cataloged by software and hardware requirements. From that point on, every system upgrade has the potential to destroy shadow systems without notice. As employees switch roles, get promoted, or leave the company, support and knowledge of the system design grows scarce.

Eventually the system is embedded into company procedure, and no one knows how it was built, what decisions were made in the process, or how to fix it when it breaks. One prominent auto-maker nearly broke their VIN number generator when rolling out a company-wide system upgrade.

Be very careful when building and providing management support to shadow systems. Insist that even if operations or IT cannot be involved in building or supporting the systems, they document their existence and system requirements. If necessary, this issue must be escalated and dealt with properly.