By Jamie Marshall, Chief Technology Officer, Calyx

For SME businesses, Shadow IT might sound like the next big technology scare story. Indeed in this age of security concerns, the idea of anyone using unauthorised IT within a company is bound to be a cause of concern. In fact, it’s an issue that has been around for a while now and has long been a problem within larger enterprises. With significant budgets available to them, departmental heads have long been investing in their own technology - either because they have disagreed with the direction their IT department has taken or, more likely, because they have felt that IT has not understood the specialist nature of their work.

What has changed recently is the scale of the problem. IT is now part of everyday life. The increasing use of smartphones, tablets and apps means that the majority of employees are tech-savvy and will often look to find their own solutions if they hit a technology barrier. So it is unsurprising that more and more SMEs are finding Shadow IT is becoming a problem.

Most staff, of course, are not looking to ‘break the rules’ or cause problems for their employers. In fact, the reverse is usually the case, with employees using the apps or software they are familiar with at home because these solutions are typically faster than those provided at work – and because they simply want to get their jobs done as quickly and effectively as possible. This is especially true of smaller companies where staff are typically encouraged to use their own initiative to think around problems.

It’s not just apps like Dropbox or Evernote that are being widely downloaded either. With so much software now available as a service, on subscription or even for free, it’s easy to download everything from sophisticated design software to financial solutions via the internet. There’s no wait for approval and monthly fees can often be covered on expenses.

So what can be done about shadow IT? Here are some first steps that small businesses should consider.

• Don’t immediately ban any application that’s not company-approved. Look at what is being used and use this as a valuable indicator of what is needed. See this as a great way of assessing and planning future requirements

• Find the right balance between security and accessibility. Ask yourself what you are looking to protect and what would be the consequences of a breach. Beware of using security as an excuse for trying to maintain the status quo.

• Work with outside consultants to explore the products and software currently on the market that are tailored for SMEs and that can provide employees with a better experience than they are currently having with any consumer-style apps. For example, if you need a managed file transfer for large attachments, there are now widely available alternatives on the market that are designed specifically for small businesses and can be integrated with company infrastructure.

• See shadow IT as a chance to strengthen internal relationships. To survive, IT departments must become better listeners and learn to hear what people want. They need to make sure they are communicating their side of the story regarding security so that their colleagues understand their concerns.

• Recognise the changing role of IT. It should now be an integral part of the way you run your business rather than just an add-on or an efficiency tool. Is this an opportunity to transform your IT infrastructure and improve the business as a result? See it as a chance to take a more proactive approach that goes beyond maintaining infrastructure on a day-to-day business and instead use it to help gain competitive advantage and drive strategic growth.

Companies will only resolve the issue of shadow IT when the IT team stop trying to swim against the tide. The best approach is to learn from what the business is using, accept that this is needed and then find more business-focused alternatives where necessary.

But more importantly, it is also another sign of how business technology is changing.IT now demands a proactive approach that goes beyond merely maintaining infrastructure on a day-to-day basis. The most forward-looking companies are using technology to mould, transform and drive strategic growth – and in so doing they are gaining a tangible competitive advantage.