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Stuart Browne 12-Jul-2022 08:32:37 8 min read

What we do in the shadows: digital transformation according to Rihanna

Have you ever taken umbrage with somebody?

Maybe you heard they'd said something about you that you didn't like. 

Perhaps they have different views to yours which you struggle to reconcile. Or said something nasty once on Twitter.

When people say or do things that we don't like, it's easy to get internally offended.  We go and sulk in a corner, vent to our closest and dearest, or kick the cat in the face.


Umbrage is one of those nouns that's hard to put your arms around - it lurks in the background and chips away at our happiness.

Umbrage comes from the word Umbra - which is the dark, fully shaded part of a shadow. 

Umbra is the root word for Umbrella - which, on a sunny beach (rather than in a rainy Northern UK town) is a good way to memorise its link back to shade.

The umbra is surrounded by penumbra - the lighter part of the shadow that has some light penetration. Painting penumbras was one the skills that sorted the men (or women) our from the boys (or girls) when you did Art at school.

Think of an eclipse. 

SAP Digital Transformation Shadow IT

The fully dark part is the umbra. The surrounding portion is the penumbra.

With a single light source, you can't see what's in the umbra. Whatsoever.

But you can see what's in the shadows of the penumbra.

Recently, I overheard an IT Director complaining about shadow IT.

Shadow IT is the tech that business people purchase directly, bypassing the IT department., and it's seen as a nuisance by IT people. A security risk. An integration nightmare. A blot on the techno-landscape. 

Fittingly, IT people take real umbrage at shadow IT.

But are they missing the point?

The reason that business leaders go out and find their own 'shadow' solutions is that they're unhappy with the solutions that the IT team provides today.

Maybe their existing systems don't work as expected, causing frustration and inefficiency.

Maybe it takes too long to implement or adapt them, which inhibits business progress.

Maybe they prefer dealing with an as-a-service supplier who listens to their pains and panders to their needs, because their subscription revenue is intrinsically linked to happiness and retention.

Or maybe IT is actually shadow IT - but the wrong way around - in that IT chose the system for the business, rather than the business choosing a system for itself.

"Can you help me with my S/4HANA business case?"

We work with customers who come to us and ask "can you help me with my S/4HANA business case?". Why? Why are you starting with the answer and looking to justify it against your business strategy? Why are you doing an SAP sales person's job for them, as well as paying their hefty commission?

We've started saying "No" to this request. Instead, we offer to help customers produce a technology roadmap that supports their business strategy (which may include S/4HANA, but might not). We're independent, and don't get a kick-back from SAP, meaning we don't actually care what our customers choose - as long as it's the best answer for their needs.

This is a nuanced reframe, but an important one.

CEOs and CFOs are more likely to sign off a self-serving approach, that is aligned with their stated strategy and business needs - than being railroaded into a crucial decision because a commercial software vendor has something new and shiny to sell.

Decades ago, the complexity in IT came from running the infrastructure, the networks, the operational aspects of backup and DR, the database tuning.

Go and buy a modern SaaS solution today and this stuff is invisible. 

It just works.

The key term in the para above is 'modern'.

"If you use Salesforce, do you even know which Database it runs on? Or care."

Load in low code. Modern API frameworks. Intelligent analytics platforms. The IT departments function is fading, other than as a technical integrator - a commodity which can either be outsourced or built as an internal competency. The choice of which is likely a matter of scale.

The surface components of technology that 'just works' are invariably business things - business processes, data, workflows and reports. You don't actually need IT people for the majority of that stuff once it's working.

Conversely, many IT support tickets are actually rooted in business failings disguised as IT problems - poor data, inconsistent training, weak security controls.

I sometimes use the metaphor of Russian Dolls to explain the business / IT relationship, mainly because diehard IT people (ITIL badge wearers) often refer to the business and IT.

But IT isn't a separate thing from the business.  Like Russian Dolls, IT sits inside the business. 

IT is part of the business.

"The trouble with Russian Dolls is that they're so full of themselves."

Ultimately, digital transformation it is a business leadership challenge, not an IT challenge.

You can implement a modern Cloud Based CRM or ERP solution with very little IT knowledge. Unless it's an old-school on-premise solution masquerading as 'cloud'.

We don't have an IT department. Maybe we're not big enough yet. Maybe we have enough technically minded people to be self-sufficient. 

But I don't think so.

I don't want an IT department.

Instead, I want business people who make the business run effectively using the technology we've invested in.

Change control doesn't need an IT department, data quality doesn't need an IT department - quite the opposite, security doesn't need an IT department.

Take umbrage if you want to, but I'm pretty sure the future of modern business technology involves collapsing the IT department to be part of the business rather than acting as a pseudo-enabler for digital transformation.

And, the problem with most digital transformations isn't the debate around what's in our out of the shadows - at least shadow IT can be seen in the light of the penumbra.

No, the problem is that nobody really knows what's hidden in the dark part - the umbra.

All of that existing undocumented invisible built over decades over offshore outsourcing, or by contractors, or during austerity when the extra cost of documentation was a luxury. All of that stuff that's holding back business performance, at a time when the main thing you need is a high-performing business.

To transform, you need to focus on what's hidden in the umbra.

If this rant resonates and you'd like help - come and stand under my umbrella...

ella, ella, eh, eh, eh?


Stuart Browne

Stuart has held leadership roles in the SAP ecosystem over an 18 year period, spanning consultancy, delivery management, practice development, sales, marketing and analyst relations. With an eclectic mix of skills and one of the largest SAP networks in the UK, Stuart has established a formidable reputation that has enabled Resulting to guide SAP customers through complex challenges.