Planet of the Apps – taming SaaS Sprawl

It wasn’t so long ago that the IT department held a vice grip on the applications and devices employees could use in the workplace. Internal technology challenges and IT-mandated policies prevented different departments getting the applications and systems they needed to perform their jobs to the best of their ability. Employee’s personal devices were deemed unfit for professional use, and everyone was armed with company-supplied laptops and phones that they didn’t really want to use.

This dark age of applications is thankfully behind us, and we’ve entered a period of IT enlightenment. HR, sales, marketing, finance and all the other business units are empowered to choose the applications they need, whenever they need them, and on whatever device. This is helping workers become more productive and effective in their daily work lives, and generally helping the business as a whole.

This was the idea, at least.

Application Overload

Whilst providing different departments with the tools they need to fulfil their own specific goals is certainly an improvement over the one size fits all policies of the past, it has created a problem all its own – SaaS sprawl.

A McAfee report from 2017 found that, on average, enterprises are using 1,427 distinct cloud services, with the typical employee using 36 different cloud applications during their working day. The large majority of these cloud apps are used in isolation, not connected to one another. With the IT department loosening its grip on the software and devices employees could use, is it possible that our appetite for applications got the better of us?

This increasing SaaS sprawl causes a number of issues for both the IT department and the business as a whole. Firstly, and this isn’t too surprising, keeping track of all these applications and managing them is a real challenge for the IT department. Security concerns around ensuring these apps are kept updated, and are in compliance with regulations and policies, has been front of mind. Whilst multiple applications that offer similar functionality exist within different departments of the same business, getting these applications working together seamlessly has been a struggle.  

With the IT department stretched thin, fighting fires on thousands of apps, they can’t be focusing on what should be one of their key functions – playing a vital role in the company’s greater digital transformation goals.

Secondly, with so many SaaS applications running independently, managing all the data that flows into them and then comes out the other side can be a real stumbling block for businesses looking to turn their growing data stores into business insights.

In a research report that we commissioned, we found over a fifth of employees from large enterprises were unaware of what data other departments hold. If this is indeed the case, then it’s highly probable that, across the business, individual departments are working with different or incomplete datasets, which they’re pushing into their various, disparate applications.

It’s a bit of a cliché now, but the old IT adage of “garbage in, garbage out” still holds true, and if departments are pushing poor quality data into their best-of-breed applications, they’re not taking full advantage of them. The benefits of being able to choose the best applications for the job at hand are dulled if the number of apps in use means data is inconsistent, or worse, inaccurate.  

Reigning in the Sprawl

The issue of SaaS sprawl is not an unsolvable one though. There are steps that can be taken throughout the business to combat SaaS sprawl and simplify the complexity it brings.

First and foremost is a realigning of the relationship between the IT team and other departments. Whilst before the IT team held ownership over apps, clearly an application free-for-all with little IT oversight is not an ideal strategy either. IT needs to be seen as a consultative team within the business, providing recommendations and best-practices on how different applications can work together and indicating where other areas of the business could benefit from using the same applications.

A key to re-forging this relationship will be identifying those in each department who can be the liaison between their department and IT to ensure that care is being taken in deciding which applications will be of genuine benefit to the business, rather than simply adding to the sprawl.

As much as the IT department must be more closely involved with the end user within each department, so too must responsibility be held by the c-suite. If a true cultural shift that encompasses transparency around application use is to take place, a mandate needs to come from the men and women at the top of the business.

Connecting Your Application Ecosystem

If the above shift in attitudes can be achieved business wide, it will allow IT a far greater level of visibility into what applications are currently running throughout the business, and make the final step of the process far simpler.

As alluded to earlier, the true value of SaaS applications cannot be realised if the data being fed into them is inconsistent, redundant, or incomplete. If applications all have the same single view of the data, greater business value can be extracted.

With proper data integration pipelines linking all these applications, IT can create a holistic data picture for use by the entire business. Analytics will be more valuable company-wide, insights more accurate, and business leaders will be able to make faster, better-informed decisions on the future of the business.

Reigning in SaaS applications isn’t simply a matter of relieving the headaches of the IT department, but ensuring that the business as a whole is properly equipped to become more data-driven and deriving the maximum value from the applications being used. Getting your SaaS sprawl in order now will deliver true business benefits in the future.

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