Feral Cat

Post: Feral Information Systems

They’re wild and they’re rampant!


I previously wrote about shadow IT here.  In that article we discuss its prevalence, its danger and how to manage it. Feral Information Systems I had no idea that Feral Information Systems (FIS) were a thing.  Feral cats I had heard of.  We actually took in two feral cats.  Well, they were kittens outdoors in the cold, with no apparent owner.  Who wouldn’t take them in.  We took them to the vet and fed them.  Over two years later, they’ve learned some manners but remain aloof to their humans.  One group that studies these things ranks feral cats as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.   


Feral Information Systems


Feral Information Systems are also invasive, as well as persistent and resilient.  The definition of FIS is a computerized system developed by one or more employees to assist in performing their business processes.  It is often designed to circumvent, workaround or bypass Enterprise mandated systems.  According to the same source, “knowledge of FISs remains limited and the theoretical explanations offered for FISs are widely contested.”  This lack of understanding is probably due to the pirate-like nature of the FISs.  Pirates don’t advertise.


Shadow IT


FIS is similar to, but distinct from Shadow IT.   Whereas a feral information system is any system that users create to replace the functions of the mandated Enterprise System, shadow IT systems tend to live alongside corporate systems and replicate its functionality.   There is some overlap to what is termed “workarounds” which tend to be more informal and temporary processes to handle non-standard cases which the enterprise standard fails to address adequately.  All share the motivation that they have been developed to address real or perceived gaps in the system of record.  


Why is there a problem?


Why do any of these exist in the first place?  Some researchers suggest that FISs may actually be a good thing in that it demonstrates innovation and helps a certain group achieve its business goals.  Personally, I’m not so sure.  I think what most contributes to the proliferation of FISs is when organizations have structural or cultural strain.  In other words, there is something in the organizational culture, processes or technology which squeezes the balloon.  When the balloon is squeezed, the air creates a bubble elsewhere.  The same is true with technology and data systems.  If processes are complicated, if systems are non-intuitive, if data is inaccessible, workers tend to develop workarounds.  Processes are simplified.  Easier systems are adopted ad hoc.  Data is shared covertly.


The Solution


It may not be possible to eradicate the pandemic of feral information systems.  It is important, however, to be aware of them and understand the reasons why they develop.  FISs may be an indication of an area of the business that needs to be improved.  If the organization addresses systemic or process-related issues of analysts’ difficulties in using mandated tools and accessing data, there may be fewer needs to seek out feral information systems. 

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As the BI space evolves, organizations must take into account the bottom line of amassing analytics assets.
The more assets you have, the greater the cost to your business. There are the hard costs of keeping redundant assets, i.e., cloud or server capacity. Accumulating multiple versions of the same visualization not only takes up space, but BI vendors are moving to capacity pricing. Companies now pay more if you have more dashboards, apps, and reports. Earlier, we spoke about dependencies. Keeping redundant assets increases the number of dependencies and therefore the complexity. This comes with a price tag.
The implications of asset failures differ, and the business’s repercussions can be minimal or drastic.
Different industries have distinct regulatory requirements to meet. The impact may be minimal if a report for an end-of-year close has a mislabeled column that the sales or marketing department uses, On the other hand, if a healthcare or financial report does not meet the needs of a HIPPA or SOX compliance report, the company and its C-level suite may face severe penalties and reputational damage. Another example is a report that is shared externally. During an update of the report specs, the low-level security was incorrectly applied, which caused people to have access to personal information.
The complexity of assets influences their likelihood of encountering issues.
The last thing a business wants is for a report or app to fail at a crucial moment. If you know the report is complex and has a lot of dependencies, then the probability of failure caused by IT changes is high. That means a change request should be taken into account. Dependency graphs become important. If it is a straightforward sales report that tells notes by salesperson by account, any changes made do not have the same impact on the report, even if it fails. BI operations should treat these reports differently during change.
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Acknowledging that assets transition through distinct phases allows for effective management decisions at each stage. As new visualizations are released, the information leads to broad use and adoption.
Think back to the start of the pandemic. COVID dashboards were quickly put together and released to the business, showing pertinent information: how the virus spreads, demographics affected the business and risks, etc. At the time, it was relevant and served its purpose. As we moved past the pandemic, COVID-specific information became obsolete, and reporting is integrated into regular HR reporting.
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