Your most innovative employees may be creating shadow IT solutions to the business problems they face. Martin White, Principle Analyst at SearchResearch Online, takes a tour of these workarounds and considers what they mean for IT leaders.

You can be certain that your board is totally focused on improving corporate productivity and minimizing risk; the annual reports of public companies always list the major risks they’re facing, alongside confident assertions that these risks are being monitored and closely managed.

Somewhere on this list will be a reference to ongoing efforts to improve profit margins by making effective use of IT assets.

But there is a corporate-wide risk which never makes the headlines despite its potential to have a significant impact on all aspects of business: the extent to which employees have developed workarounds to improve their personal productivity and reduce the stress of coping with increasingly complex integrated applications. Gallup found that employee stress in 2022 has exceeded the previous record set in 2020; on a daily basis, 39% of European workers are experiencing excessive of stress at work. Developing workarounds means that the employee feels in charge of their own destiny and decreases their level of stress.

A brief history of workarounds

We all use workarounds in every aspect of our lives, though we often regard them as some sort of ‘Plan B’. We even pride ourselves on the speed with which we can come up with a workaround to any business challenge, and that is exactly what your employees are doing as you read this article. Talk to a London taxi driver and they will tell you that one of the rewards of their job is finding a workaround to get you to your appointment on schedule no matter how bad the traffic situation.

The focus on productivity has resulted in a significant business opportunity for vendors offering business process management and process mining applications, but it was as early as the mid-1980s that the realisation dawned that there was often a gap between the specification for an enterprise application and the way in which employees then adapted it to improve their personal productivity.

Over the last thirty years there has been an immense amount of academic research into the reasons why employees turn into pseudo systems-developers and what the implications could be of the adoption of workarounds. However, it is very rare for workarounds to be discussed in IT conferences, perhaps because senior IT managers feel that their reputation is on the line. It doesn’t help that the research is published in academic papers.

At the heart of the matter is that little attention is paid to the user experience of integrated enterprise systems. ISO standards for usability (ISO 9241—11:2018) and for system quality (ISO 25010-2011) do exist, but in my experience little attention is paid to them.

Information hallucinations

It is often stated that unstructured information is dominant in the workplace. Process mining tools can only track processes, not the content being processed; in most enterprise IT systems the use of free form text boxes is minimal.

Inside an organisation each employee has to accept and process the information they receive on trust. Data entered into a database usually has some form of validation check, but that is not the case with text documents. In a clinical setting, for example, Electronic Health Record (EHR) applications make extensive use of textual notes. The dangers of inadvertent corruption of patient records are a constant concern as they could directly impact the healthcare outcomes of patients.

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This problem could be about to get worse; the last couple of months have seen ChatGPT emerge as a means of providing a plethora of workarounds for employees needing to create, summarise or translate a document despite the concern that at least some outputs seem to be nothing more than hallucinations.

I find it curious that there is an ISO Standard for Knowledge Management (ISO 30401) but not an equivalent standard for information management. Throughout any organisation there will be endless quality standards and quality checks - but not for information quality.

Making the invisible visible

Because of their invisibility it is very unlikely that anyone in your organisation has a definitive catalogue of IT workarounds. Process mining applications aim to identify the process reality and so should, in theory, identify workarounds. In practice, this is challenging - especially when the employee is using shadow IT (such as Excel spreadsheet) to aggregate data prior to entering it into an unwelcoming box on their screen, therefore bypassing the process mining applications. On top of this, it is likely that employees who have the skills to develop the best workarounds also have the knowledge on how to conceal them if the ethos of the company - and the IT teams in particular - is that workarounds will not be tolerated.

Risks and rewards

Paradoxically, it is the most experienced and innovative employees that are likely to be the developers of workarounds. In theory they could of course talk to the IT application teams about their approach, but are probably dreading the inquisition about why they are not using a process that has been carefully specified. The employee who develops a workaround, perhaps using shadow IT, will therefore carefully evaluate the risk they run in doing so.

Often that risk is downstream; the next employee along the process road makes an assumption and a decision based on the data or text they see, which then turns out to be misleading, potentially leads to dissatisfied clients and resulting in a dent in corporate and personal reputations.

As well as giving rise to risks, the workaround will almost certainly increase the technical debt of the application development. Both the risks and the debt increase considerably when the employee leaves the business, taking with them details of their workarounds which could well have had a very positive impact on the overall productivity of the process - which suddenly decreases for no apparent reason.

Edict or ethos

Given the potential impact of ChatGPT, there is no better time than now to develop a strategy for identifying workarounds, understanding why they have been created and what lessons can be learned to improve processes that employees use on a regular basis. It also has to be recognized that information workarounds could create substantially higher levels of risk than data-orientated workarounds.

It’s vital to create an ethos where discussions about workarounds can be held without employees being treated as unwelcome whistleblowers. Process mining applications can be of some assistance, but they must be used constructively to inform discussions between business managers, IT application teams and, above all, the employees themselves. Time for the CIO to remember that the ‘I’ stands for ‘Information’.