“Rogue IT” is about to wreak havoc at work

August 9, 2012, 11:18 AM UTC

It’s out there: lurking in cubicles, infiltrating boardrooms, pulsing through desktops and laptops and tablets. Viral. Relentless. Unstoppable.

Rogue IT is the name given to the informal, ad hoc software and devices brought by employees into the workplace. If you’ve ever taken your own iPad to work or used cloud-based software like Evernote or Dropbox in the office, you may well be an offender. And you’re not alone. Some 43% of businesses report that their employees are using cloud services independently of the IT department, according to a recent survey of 500 IT decision makers.

In the past, these enterprise software and hardware decisions were often the exclusive domain of a company’s chief information officer or CIO, the senior executive in charge of information technology and computer systems. “Sitting in his high chair in a grey suit barking orders, [the CIO would make] product decisions for big companies with even larger user bases,” explains Peter Fenton of tech investors Benchmark Capital. Rogue IT turns that model on its head, effectively crowdsourcing IT choices to employees. So where does this leave the venerable CIO? And what does it mean for the future of IT at the world’s largest enterprises?

The good news is that enterprise IT has plenty of room for improvement. “[Traditional IT] carries connotations of interminable rollouts, bewildering interfaces, obscure functionality and high prices,” writes CIO.com’s Bernard Golden. Security, compliance and back-end compatibility have traditionally topped CIO wish lists, not usability. As a result, employees have sometimes been left with programs that are anything but intuitive. This exacted a heavy toll in terms of time, money and organizational well-being.

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In the past, however, front-line workers would have had little choice but to struggle with these clunky legacy programs dictated from above. But the rapid growth of online, cloud-based software options (known as SaaS, or software-as-a-service) has now enabled ordinary workers to bypass IT and “take matters into their own hands,” explains TechCrunch contributor Alan Cohen.

Bloated, enterprise software no longer cuts it. Seduced by Facebook (FB) and similarly intuitive platforms at home, millennials balk at staring down monster spreadsheets or decoding web 1.0 UIs at work, writes Fast Company contributor Marcia Conner. Increasingly, they expect their work suites and software to be just as user-friendly as the apps they know and love in their personal lives, a trend known as the consumerization of IT. And they’re willing to go outside company walls to find products that work best for them.

File sharing offers a ready example. Microsoft (MSFT) SharePoint is traditional enterprise software used by organizations to manage documents and share content. Critics complain, not infrequently, that the platform can be rigid, convoluted and web unfriendly.

While not quite as robust, Box — a file sharing service launched in 2005 — offers an easy-to-use, online alternative. With little to download or install, users can share content after a few clicks. Freemium pricing encourages adoption. Like many popular SaaS solutions on the web (Yammer, LastPass, Dropbox, Evernote), Box is generally free for individual users. Charges are only assessed for upgraded and enterprise-wide editions.

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“Individuals and groups . . . start using the product initially on their own, in many cases leading their corporate IT departments to sign up for premium management and administration tools,” writes GeekWire’s Todd Bishop, summing up the typical viral adoption model. An app might start out with a dedicated clique of users in marketing, for instance, then one day jump departmental walls and go company-wide.

Meanwhile, the process is fueled by contemporary BYOD (that’s Bring-Your-Own-Device) culture. With personal smartphones and tablets entering the workplace, employees are no longer tied to their work PC, with its legacy software determined from on high. Firing up cloud-based apps on your own iPad requires no blessing from IT, no complex approval procedure, writes PCWorld’s Tony Bradley.

In the end, the best SaaS solutions rise to the top democratically. Employees do the hard work of beta-testing different options in the workplace and – in the best-case scenarios – the most effective software emerges naturally. The CIO’s role in the selection process is reduced to signing off on premium, enterprise-wide editions of the most popular apps.

Yammer CEO David Sacks, whose company (a “Facebook for the office”) was recently acquired by Microsoft for $1.2 billion, points out the newfound authority of employees and end users: “They’re saying, ‘This is the tool I want to use. This is the tool that’s going to make me productive. And come on, IT, let’s get with the program.’”

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So do we even need an IT department anymore, asks cloud-booster Phil Wainewright in ZDNet. Can’t companies just crowdsource their software decisions and leave software management to SaaS providers in the cloud? Is it time for the CIO to go?

Not so fast. Once rogue IT goes legit, someone has to be there to do the hard work of making sure the different pieces fit together, writes Peter Kretzman in Wired. It’s hard to imagine anyone but a capable CIO handling the nitty-gritty of collecting and integrating data with other corporate resources, not to mention tackling data security and regulatory compliance issues.

Still, rogue IT does promise to considerably streamline the CIO’s role. Marc Schiller of CIO Insight points out that the CIO was never intended to be a chief implementation officer, holding employees’ hands through software rollouts and upgrades. Freed from software selection and maintenance, CIOs can invest more time on higher level needs, namely “managing, securing, enhancing and leveraging the organization’s information assets.”

Currently, some of the best crowdsourced IT solutions are in the arena of social media. While used by an estimated 1.43 billion people worldwide, social media has only begun to be tapped in the workplace. In other words, ordinary employees – who already know the power of personal social networks – are likeliest to introduce new social tools that connect businesses and clients and boost internal productivity. Yammer and HootSuite are two examples of social apps that often start their lives as rogue IT before being officially embraced by CIOs who see their benefit to the bottom line (Disclosure: HootSuite, a social media management system, is my company).

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In this light, rogue IT and crowdsourced software decisions become less an enemy within than a potential win-win. Employees get a voice in choosing intuitive, user-friendly software that lets them do their jobs better. Meanwhile, CIOs – freed from an autocratic selection process, liberated by SaaS from the tedium of maintaining servers and monitoring upgrades – assume a far more business-forward role within the company.

In the end, going rogue may be the only way to go.

Ryan Holmes is the CEO of HootSuite, a social media management system with nearly five million users, including 79 of the Fortune 100 companies. In the trenches everyday with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the world’s largest social networks, Holmes has a unique view on the intersection of social media and big business.