2 Workarounds – here, there and everywhere!

In this chapter

In Chapter 1 the quotation from the Oxford English Dictionary highlighted the way in which the term ‘workaround’ had started off as aerospace jargon and only more recently has it been adopted in the IT industry and also as a colloquial expression for situations where there was little or no IT involved. This chapter highlights just a few examples of this wider use to provide a balance to the remaining chapters of this book which focus on the use of the term in the context of the user experience of complex IT applications.


Recipe management

Most of us have collections of processes on our shelves masquerading as recipe books. When choosing a recipe to cook for supper the initial check is whether or not we have all the listed ingredients. This is not a simple task, if only because we are certain that we have a specific spice only to discover in the preparation stage that the spice has been in a poorly sealed jar and has long since oxidised and lost its zing. The challenge is then to find a suitable workaround, though we probably do not regard it as such. It is not uncommon for the author of a recipe book to offer workarounds and suggest that, for example, chicken can be substituted for veal.

The process remains the same in terms of steps and sequence, so the use of the term ‘workaround’ is entirely appropriate. Of course, if the workaround is successful then it is unlikely that we will disclose to our guests what we have done to deliver a tasty meal whilst coping with a lack of one or more of the ingredients. If the reaction is really positive then we will make a note in the margin of the book and use the adapted recipe in future. The problem we may then face is that our guests ask for a copy of the recipe and we then have to disclose the changes we made to the recipe earlier in the day!

The ‘recipe’ metaphor could be useful in explaining to students and to employees the main features of a ‘workaround’ without needing to take an example from their own experiences.

The due process of law

However defined, at the core of a workaround is a modification to a process. The concept of a process dates back to the 14th century. The ‘due process of law’ is a fundamental principle of fairness in all legal matters, both civil and criminal, especially in the courts. All legal procedures set by statute and court practice, including notice of rights, must be followed for each individual so that no prejudicial or unequal treatment will result.

In English law the due process principle is enshrined in the Observance of the Due Process of Law, a statute that was passed in 1368 under King Edward the Third.

“ITEM, At the Request of the Commons by their Petitions put forth in this Parliament, to eschew the Mischiefs and Damages done to divers of his Commons by false Accusers, which oftentimes have made their Accusations more for Revenge and singular Benefit, than for the Profit of the King, or of his People, which accused Persons, some have been taken, and [sometime] caused to come before the King’s Council by Writ, and otherwise upon grievous Pain against the Law: It is assented and accorded, for the good Governance of the Commons, that no Man be put to answer without Presentment before Justices, or Matter of Record, or by due Process and Writ original, according to the old Law of the Land: And if any Thing from henceforth be done to the contrary, it shall be void in the Law, and holden for Error”

This statute is the first reference to ‘process’ in its current use as a string of related activities resulting in a defined outcome. It was not the first use of ‘process’ as a verb which dates back to the 1250s. Lawyers have spent the last 655 years working out how best to work around these due processes in a way that maintains their legality but have the desired outcome for the people they were representing.

The importance of this Act lies not just in setting out the legal definition of a process but its consequences. With law being regarded as a process anything related to law (taxes, wills, land ownership etc.) also needed to adopt processes as a core element of their framing and use.

It is not surprising that when taking into account English law the Founding Fathers of the United States adopted the concept of due process in U.S. law as now set out in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This  provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment.

Political decisions in the United States of America are very tightly linked to its Constitution, but as Tushnet (2009) shows there are many examples of how the text of the Constitution and subsequent judgements of the Supreme Court interpreting the text give rise to workarounds that can be used to speed decisions or slow them down. The author remarks that these workarounds arise (a) when there is significant political pressure to accomplish some goal, but (b) some parts of the Constitution’s text seems fairly clear in prohibiting people from reaching that goal directly, yet (c) there appear to be other ways of reaching the goal that fit comfortably with the Constitution.

In the essay Tushnet categorises workarounds as fraudulent, contested or true workarounds. True workarounds are methods that achieve results inconsistent with one constitutional provision by taking advantage of the opportunities provided by other constitutional provisions. True workarounds involve actions that are unquestionably consistent with the Constitution’s formal requirements. The author makes the point that the fact that they can readily be characterised as yielding results inconsistent with the Constitution explains why the term “workaround” might have a slightly seedy resonance, a situation that is echoed throughout any discussion of workarounds.

Global vs local

A situation where workarounds may be of especial value is when a case is subject to both national law and international conventions. Article 5 of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works ensures that a foreign author based in a signatory country can claim the same copyright protection as local authors whether or not they enjoy protection in their own country (Porcin 2012). For example, since both the United States and France signed the Berne Convention an American rights-holder whose works are exploited in France can claim the same rights as French rights-holders in France.

In addition to granting protection to foreign authors, the Berne Convention provides for minimum protection standards. Consequently, signatory countries are free to increase copyright protection through any mechanism of their liking. However, this can give rise to some substantial problems.

The author illustrates a number of workarounds which have been developed (in this case specifically for USA/France agreements) to circumvent the differences in approach at a national level that the international Convention does not specifically address.

Coping with the Covid pandemic

The impact of Covid on working practices in 2020 was immediate as offices, shops and factories had to find ways of continuing their business activities under conditions that were novel, challenging, often changing by Government edict with little prior notice. Workarounds were actively sought, implemented, discarded and adapted and it will be some time before all the implications of Covid on working practices will be fully understood despite the very significant amount of research that has been published.

In the UK, and no doubt in other countries at this time, there was a recognition that the processes of justice had to maintained without compromising the impact on individual citizens. (Tomlinson 2020) looks at just one element of the UK judicial system, the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. This service lies at the core of English judicial processes, with responsibility for providing the supporting administration for a fair, efficient and accessible courts and tribunal system.

The Service had over 17,000 employees and was already in the process of an extensive, expensive, and controversial £1bn digital transformation project. The onset of Covid restrictions in the UK caused a dramatic shift from conventional face-to-face judicial processes to remote hearings in a matter of days. The Service managed this shift with very little notice and yet being acutely aware of the importance of maintaining compliance with the law in a situation without any previous parallel. The paper records the many different ways lawyers and court officials found ways to workaround the challenges of remote working without compromising legal validity.

Adaptation to organisational process changes

In France over the last two decades there have been some substantial changes in the justice system under which the police operate. These reforms to the justice system had an indirect impact on officers’ relationships with their hierarchy and their colleagues. Monties and Gagnon ( 2022) describe two ways a sense of alienation arose. First, the reform led to rules requiring officers to spend an increasing amount of time on clerical tasks, decreasing time in the field engaged in their preferred activities, such as searching, chasing, or capturing. At the same time, they expressed a loss of trust in their hierarchy, referring to their superiors as ‘pen-pushers’ who no longer understood the realities of the field.

As an example of how these problems work through to the front line the paper cites the introduction to a training course by an instructor.

“First we’re going to show you the official, regulation techniques we’re supposed to use when we’re facing a non-compliant person or in case of assault. We all learned these gestures in police school. Most of us know by now that these gestures are not effective in real-life situations. So we’re going to show you other techniques that are close to the official ones, but are more effective and appropriate in a real confrontation in the field, so you can protect yourself.”

The paper gives a number of similar examples where police officers felt that although the law required them to access a set of rules, these were counter-productive to gaining convictions whilst retaining their pride and individual competence.

In the conclusion to their paper the authors note the importance of conversation if personnel are to accept and integrate changes managers wish to implement, and that managers must be aware of the ways that workarounds and rule-bending practices can help shed light on the resistance that may occur and the identity work it generates.

Workarounds and rule bending

A paper by Bozeman et al (Bozeman, Youtie and Jung 2020) considers the relationship between workarounds and rule bending.  It provides a very broad view of both workarounds and rule-bending within the context of university administration without any specific reference to IT systems. The context of the research undertaken by the authors is the workload associated with applying for research grants in US universities, a challenge faced by universities everywhere!

The paper is based on a comprehensive literature review with a particular focus on healthcare, medical and nursing, IT and management, and public administration. Interviews were conducted with 116 academics. The authors make the valuable observation that the literature on workarounds and rule bending comes from different perspectives and reflects different interests, in large measure due to the nature of the context examined.

The authors differentiate between:

  • Rule noncompliance: any instance in which an organisation’s employee engages in activities that go against organisational rules. Noncompliant behaviour does not need to be a direct action in violation of rules, it can also entail failing to act at all when action is required by rules.
  • Rule breaking: self-conscious noncompliance with a formal rule, by any means, for any reason, including not acting at all when a behaviour is required.
  • Rule bending: a form of noncompliance that takes advantage of loopholes in rules or a rule’s lack of clarity and therefore the possibilities for multiple interpretations.
  • Workarounds: a self-conscious and calculated unsanctioned action taken by an employee to address a perceived shortcoming of the rule with respect to one or more of the employee’s objectives (which may or may not be consistent with the rule’s objectives)

The authors comment:

“In contrast to rule bending, workaround behavior, by our conceptualization, entails taking specific actions not sanctioned by the rule, typically making adjustments to the rule, with the intent of serving any of a number of objectives, ranging from personal convenience to helping a client to taking actions perceived to benefit the organization.”

They go on to observe:

While workaround behavior is clearly related to rule bending, workarounds are generally more calculated and are less likely to be one-off behaviors. Our concept of workaround requires direct action in pursuit of objectives that the individual perceives as not well served by the rule. These objectives may relate to the organization’s intended objectives, but they may also relate to the individual’s personal objectives or objectives of stakeholders valued by the individual. Thus, in our usage, workarounds are not just a matter of addressing workflow problems and bottlenecks.”

Hybrid processes and workarounds

A significant majority of the published research on workarounds presupposes that the entire process from creation to completion is digital. Despite the wide-scale adoption of IT process support systems many organisations, especially smaller enterprises, struggle with processes where, for some reason, important information is communicated using a hybrid process of paper documents (which may have been created using a computer) and IT systems.

A paper by Mörike (2022) is a very good example, and one that I return to in Chapter 5 because of the ethnographic research methodology adopted by the author. The paper explores in some detail the hierarchies of the company and the way in which workarounds are used to manage the flow of information, resulting in a reversal of the obvious managerial and operational hierarchies. Another factor is the way in which elements of the physical arrangement of the offices supported or compromised workarounds. The author describes how digital (ERP) tools and the analogue tools (such as walking down a staircase to a different department to validate information) are very closely linked and have been optimised to ensure that the company works as effectively as possible in meeting customer orders.

Although there is a firm-wide IT system this study focuses on the information flows around the organisation and not on any particular lack of ability to make use of the IT systems. This is an important aspect of the research project as so much of the research literature focuses on the process and does not take into account the impact on information quality and veracity, a topic covered in more detail in Chapter 9.

The dark side of workarounds

The purpose of this book is to illustrate the potential benefits and risks from employees developing workarounds with a view to improving their own working environment. There are of course many examples where disaffected employees use workarounds to damage the operations and reputation of the organisation they work for. I have excluded any discussion of this type of workaround.

The bottom line

These are just a few of many examples of where process changes have been referred to as workarounds. During the course of writing this book I set up a profile on Google Scholar for ‘workarounds’.  In a typical week around a dozen papers would be presented in the profile, with a split of four on enterprise IT workarounds, four on clinical systems workarounds and four on situations where there was little or no IT involved.  The research papers listed below come from a wide range of publications and there could be significant benefits from organisations looking for management solutions to IT workaround issues in account of the experience from these ‘non-IT’ workarounds. Chapter 3 considers the user experience issues that arise from the complexity of enterprise IT systems.


Bozeman, B., Youtie, J. & Jung, J. (2021). Death by a thousand 10-minute tasks: workarounds and noncompliance in university research administration. Administration & Society, 53(4), 527–568. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0095399720947994

Monties, V. & Gagnon, S. (2022). Responding to reforms: resilience through rule-bending and workarounds in the police force. Public Management Review, May 1:1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/14719037.2022.2070242

Mörike, F. (2022). Inverted hierarchies on the shop floor: The organisational layer of workarounds for collaboration in the metal industry. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 31, 111-147.  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10606-021-09415-2  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10606-021-09415-2

Porcin, A. (2012). Of guilds and men: Copyright workarounds in the cinematographic industry. Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal, 35,(1). https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_comm_ent_law_journal/vol35/iss1/1/

Tomlinson, J., Hynes, J., Marshall, E., & Maxwell, J. (2020). Judicial review in the administrative court during the Covid-19 pandemic. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3580367

Tushnet, M. (2009). Constitutional workarounds. Texas Law Review, 87, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 09-14.        https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1338087


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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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