4 A chronology of definitions

In this chapter

Over the last two decades there has been a substantial amount of research into developing definitions of workarounds and shadow IT.  These definitions also support the categorisation of workarounds and provide a basis for discovering their existence and for identifying what actions should be taken to incorporate the governance of workarounds and shadow IT into an organisational IT strategy. This chapter has a chronological structure, initially considering research published between 1986 and 2010. By 2010 process data logging applications that enabled organisations to track the way in which employees were progressing through a process were becoming available. This is reflected in research after 2010 when data from AI and machine learning applications started to become available.

Defining ‘process’

The dictionary definitions in Chapter 1 do not reflect the complexity of the concept of a workaround. It is quite clear from the examples in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 that the word can be interpreted in many ways. When it comes to workarounds in the organisation, if there is not a clear definition of what a workaround could be then it is not possible to consider how they can be discovered or to reach a decision on what actions should be taken to deal with them.

Before considering definitions of workarounds it is important to consider the definition of a process. A process is generally regarded as a series of actions that lead to a defined outcome. The process may not necessarily be linear, in that there could be branches that accommodate a specific action. For example, in processing an order it could be that if the order is in excess of a specified amount there has to be a branch for a specific authorisation for the order before returning to the core process. Incidentally the first definition of ‘process’ as a linear set of actions dates back to 1368 and the promulgation of a Statute for the Observance of the Due Process of Law.

This definition of a process works well for a largely data-rich process but not for what is often regarded as knowledge work. The objective here might be an assessment of a market opportunity. There may well be a procedure for preparing this assessment but with considerable variations in who is involved in the procedure (it might vary by product, country and whether the product is just an upgrade or completely new) and the schedule for completing the stages. Once a process is started it would be unusual for it to be halted or cancelled. In the case of a market opportunity report the decision might be taken to put a temporary hold on the preparation of the document, perhaps until such time as a new marketing manager for the product had been recruited. The implications of process versus procedure on the discovery of workarounds are considered in Chapter 5.

A considerable amount of academic research has been undertaken into defining, and in particular categorising, workarounds. The chronology of this research is a useful approach to understanding how the topics and workarounds, including shadow IT, have emerged over the last four decades. The periods covered are 1986-2010 and 2011-2023.

Research 1986 – 2010

The process of defining workarounds started with the PhD thesis of Leslie Gasser at the University of Southern California in the period from 1981 to 1984. In a paper based on his thesis Gasser (1986) considered the way in which computing activity is coordinated through numerous commitments among actors to carry out task chains that deliver products of a particular type, in a particular time, for a particular cost. He noted that performance of each task, and the fulfilment of individual commitments, is contingent upon the organisation of the work of numerous other actors (what Gasser refers to as the production lattice). Each task in a production lattice is shaped by the arrangement of the work situation in which it occurs. The orderly flow of work depends upon the consistent alignment of resources and commitments in the workplace.

This is an important observation because there is a tendency to consider a single workaround and not consider whether the adoption of this workaround has implications for successive elements of the process and the eventual outcome.

Gasser defines the concept of ‘resource slip’ as the undersupply or qualitative misalignment of resources needed or expected for carrying out a task. Slip may occur in any resource dimensions in the work situation, such as when there is too little time, technology, budget, attention, etc., or when the quality of resources is inappropriate. The author suggests that there are three strategies for accommodation to computing slip: fitting, augmenting, and working around.

Gasser goes on to define working around as intentionally using computing in ways for which it was not designed or avoiding its use and relying on an alternative means of accomplishing work.

In the conclusion to his paper he writes

“This research has several implications for designers, implementers, and managers of systems. Although we need more research to identify the distribution and patterns of system workarounds and other articulation work, it is clear from our study that implementers and maintainers must focus attention on the institutional arrangements of system use in order to make systems more maintainable and to assure that implementation goals are met. Users find difficulties fixing problems when there is conflict between aspects of their own work situations and those of other people involved in repair.”

Gasser’s paper has been cited over 750 times (according to Google Scholar) which for a paper written in the comparatively early stages of enterprise-wide information technology adoption is remarkable and gives a sense of the scale of the research that has been published over the last four decades.

Although Gasser is often quoted as providing a definition of workaround in the context of IT systems the papers by Suchman (1983) and by Gerson and Star (1986) should also be considered because they start to address what might be regarded as the underlying issues of managing IT processes in the organisation, especially in an office setting.

There were very few papers on workarounds and shadow IT published in the 1990s, but the level of attention increased from 2005 onwards. Morath and Turnbull (2005) characterise health care professionals as masters of workarounds, recognising how common such practices had become in health care contexts even though this was in the very early stages of the deployment of Electronic Health Record (EHR) applications.

Boudreau and Robey (2005) report an interpretive case study of an ERP system after its implementation in a large government agency. Despite the transformation agenda accompanying the new system, users initially chose to avoid using it as much as possible (inertia) and later to work around system constraints in unintended ways (reinvention). This is one of the earliest ERP case studies and although the authors do not provide any specific definition of a workaround their research is cited in over 1400 subsequent papers. As with the papers from Gasser and Alter this is another strong indication of the scale of research, and in this particular case the value of what was one of the earliest research projects into ERP implementation.

Although Pollock (2005) does not set out to develop a definition of a workaround his paper is important in identifying that prior research had not considered in any depth the reasons for workarounds being developed.

Ferneley and Sobreperez (2006)  provide a critical assessment of the comparatively limited number of research studies that had been published, observing that most tended to resolve towards a binary approach in which workarounds were either of value or presented a challenge to the organisation. Taking an initial assumption of compliance (namely that the user will acquiesce to the system’s prescribed function and form regardless of its effectiveness or suitability) the authors propose that a range of motives may move the user from compliance towards either positive or negative resistance, the intersection between positive and negative resistance illustrates that from the differing perspectives of various stakeholders an occurrence of resistance may be viewed positively or negatively.

Houghton and Kerr (2006 and 2007) propose a definition of a feral information system as an information system that is developed by individuals or groups of employees to help them with their work, but is not condoned by management nor is part of the corporation’s accepted IT infrastructure. This definition is more in line with the concept that emerged a few years later of shadow IT.

Halbestlaben (2008) comments that despite their widespread acknowledgment by health care professionals and common mention in the health care literature there is virtually no research concerning the consequences of workarounds for health care professionals. In a later paper (2010) he positions workarounds as a contributing factor in the occurrence of occupational injuries.

Research 2011 – 2023

The level of interest in workarounds and shadow IT increased substantially from 2010 onwards.  It is noteworthy that from around this date the Gartner Group (a leading IT consulting firm) was raising the profile and benefits of business process management applications.

The development of a definition for shadow IT is usually credited to Rentrop and Zimmerman (2012) even though the term was in fairly common use by that time. There is an interesting transition around this time from ‘shadow IT’ to ‘Shadow IT’ as a means of identifying it as a significant challenge for IT managers. Klotz (Klotz et al 2019) presents a comprehensive review of the literature on Shadow IT.

A very significant contribution to the issues arising from workarounds and how these could be detected by some form of IT diagnostic application was made by Outmazgin in 2013, with a revised version of the paper appearing in 2016. The 2013 paper reports on five case studies of workarounds in organisations of different sizes and lines of business, but with common processes. From a qualitative analysis of 25 interviews interviews six generic types of workarounds were identified together with situational factors that characterise each of these types.

The six generic types were

  • Type A – Bypass of process parts.
  • Type B – Selecting an entity instance that fits a preferable path.
  • Type C – Post factum information changes.
  • Type D – Incompliance to role definition.
  • Type E – Fictitious entity instances.
  • Type F – Separation of the actual process from the reported one.

The research is extended in the 2016 paper to assess the extent to which each of these types can be tracked by process log analysis.

A very detailed critique of prior research was undertaken by Eszter van der Schaft–Bartis (2013) in her PhD thesis from the Corvinus University, Budapest. The thesis includes a bibliography of 250 papers and reports. The chronology highlights the lack of research into IT-related workarounds in the period from 1986 to the time of her research for her thesis. An important contribution made in the thesis is an assessment of the benefits and challenges of a range of research methodologies.

The definition offered by Schaft-Bartis in her thesis is

“Workarounds are routines existing next to the computer system: complementing, supplementing or bypassing activities which are not planned and which users exert in order to fulfil their work tasks”

At the same time as Bartiz was working on her PhD thesis Steve Alter was developing a framework for workarounds. (Alter 2014). The introduction to the paper is of considerable value and stands the test of time. Currently it is cited in 442 subsequent papers and has had a very significant impact on workarounds definition and workarounds in general.

The definition of a workaround that Alter developed from his very thorough analysis of research published during the period from Gasser’s paper in 1986 up to around 2014 is

“A workaround is a goal-driven adaptation, improvisation, or other change to one or more aspects of an existing work system in order to overcome, bypass, or minimize the impact of obstacles, exceptions, anomalies, mishaps, established practices, management expectations, or structural constraints that are perceived as preventing that work system or its participants from achieving a desired level of efficiency, effectiveness, or other organizational or personal goals.”

In his paper Alter compares and contrasts previous definitions with his own and goes on to map out a significant number of aspects of the development, impact and consequences of workarounds.

In a review paper published in 2016, twenty years after Gasser’s seminal paper, Roder (2016) highlighted a lack of depth in the research into workarounds that had been conducted so far. This paper is notable for two important reasons. The first is that the authors provide a table of the outcomes of 84 research papers set out under nine features, such as whether the research was conceptual or based on case studies, and the type of workarounds that were identified.  The second is that the authors also set out an ontology of workarounds. This includes ‘punishment’ and ‘probability of punishment’ which to this author seem out of place in a business context.

Ejnefnall and Agerfalk (2019) conducted a very detailed review of 110 research papers on the definitions of workarounds, paying especial attention to the research methodology used, and the extent to which the research paper was based on empirical research or on a critical review of the literature.

The authors comment that they found that studies examined various empirical contexts that differed according to company size (small to multinational companies) and industry type (private companies and public companies, such as hospitals and government agencies). However they found large differences in the number of studies connected to different theoretical insights and thus, some insights necessarily emerged from fewer contexts since fewer total studies identified them.

They found that only three theoretical insights about workarounds attracted relatively considerable research attention in relation to the number of studies:

  • workarounds as resulting from organisational-system misfit
  • workarounds as resulting from conflict between top-down pressures and bottom-up constraints, and
  • workarounds as connected to resistance.

The authors note that of the 84 papers that they reviewed 24 appeared in conference proceedings. They comment that because papers in conference proceedings do not undergo as rigorous a review process as journal papers and have a much shorter length, they often do not thoroughly describe their data collection, analysis, and results.

The paper includes a very useful table that for each paper reviewed whether there was an empirical basis to the paper.

Wolf and Beverungen (2019) build on Alter (2014) and focus on the extent to which an individual workaround may have a wider impact in an organisation, either on a subsequent stage of a process or as a model for other employees to adopt when developing their own workarounds.

The authors expanded the coding scheme proposed by Alter, renaming

  • ‘phenomena’ into  ‘trigger’
  • ‘perspectives’ into ‘perception’
  • ‘organizational challenges and dilemmas’ into ‘challenges and opportunities to ensure appropriate mapping of the data’.

The authors also restructured and summarised the triggers (formerly phenomena) associated with workarounds. Although they adopted Alter’s ‘technological misfit’ (Alter, 2014) (i.e., constraints regarding the functionality of an IT artefact and activity performance on an individual), they added ‘organizational misfit’ (i.e., a discrepancy between the defined process and the actual performance), and ‘strategic misfit’ (i.e., a discrepancy of an IT artefact with an organisation’s strategy and operations) as new triggers for workarounds. The justification for making these changes was because the authors considered that many workarounds have organisational causes that lay outside of Alter’s Theory of Workarounds.

Blijleven and his colleagues (Blijleven, Koelemeijer and Jaspers 2019) examine the management of workarounds in electronic health care systems. As set out in Chapter 3 there are some differences between ERP and EHR applications but both are examples of complex enterprise applications where users may need to resort to workarounds.

The team developed the Sociotechnical Electronic Heath Care Record Workaround Analysis framework, under the SEWA acronym. This framework looks at the inter-relationships between Persons, Tasks, the EHR System, EHR Workarounds, the Physical Environment, and the Organisation, and considers the Outcomes in Scope and Impact. The model is based on Systems Engineering Initiative for Patient Safety (SEIPS). They propose that four distinct attributes identify EHR workarounds.

  • Cascading versus non-cascading workarounds
  • Avoidable versus unavoidable workarounds
  • Anticipated versus unanticipated workarounds
  • Incidental versus routinised workarounds

In a summary of the paper the authors comment that EHR workarounds are not solely the result of technical EHR-related factors but also of human, organisation and task-related factors.

The SEWA framework was subject to a review  published in 2022 (Blijleven, Hoxda and Jaspers 2022). A scoping literature review was performed on studies related to EHR workarounds published between 2010 and 2021. A total of 737 studies were retrieved, of which 62 (8.4%) were included in the final analysis.

A novel approach to building on Alter’s work has been undertaken by Wibisono (2019). The top most cited papers and the top most recent papers are compared within the framework of Alter’s Theory of Workarounds. This has the benefit of creating a very useful list of 43 papers as a basis for a literature search. In a subsequent paper (2022) the concept of organisational routines is used to classify workarounds.

A paper from Willermark (2022) is of importance because of the four case studies incorporated into the paper from the public sector, a group of cancer rehabilitation nurses and resident physicians in a hospital, a group of primary school teachers and a group of municipal communicators. It has the merit of being a very concise approach to categorisation of workarounds in Practice of Flexibility, Practice of Efficiency and Practice of Responsibility.

The most recent review of the literature come from Einfjall et al (2023) in which the authors update their 2019 paper. They provide a very useful tabular analysis by research themes of both the research cited in their 2019 paper and research published from 2019 to 2022,

The table below provides a chronological list of the research papers that include a good review of the literature at the time of publication

Author and date References
Boudreau 2005 56
Halbesleben 2008 54
Schaft-Bartis 2013 230
Alter 2014 130
Roder 2016 102
Blijleven 2019 42
Wibisono 2019 42
Einefjall 2019 120
Wolf 2019 45
Beerepont 2021 270
Willermark 2022 45
Wibisono 2022 50
Blijleven 2022

Einefjall 2023



The bottom line

The quest for a definitive definition and sub-categorisation of workarounds (including shadow IT) continues, and may do so for some time to come. Many of the studies considered in this chapter are based either totally on reviews of the literature or a literature review and some generally small-scale case studies. The focus is on categorisation of the types of workarounds but in general little attention is paid to defining why employees develop workarounds. Among these reasons are the challenges faced by employees who have neurodiverse conditions and need to make adaptions to be able to use IT applications which have not taken their requirements into account at the development stage. Overall Alter’s analysis in 2014 remains a very important framework for the consideration of why workarounds are developed. By their nature workarounds tend to be invisible to the organisation. Chapter 5 sets out the potential options to discover the scale and purpose of workarounds.


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Workarounds: the benefits and the risks Copyright © 2023 by Martin White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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