working on a phone, laptop and tablet
PHOTO: Michael Coghlan

When I look at the search logs of enterprise search applications it's common to find roughly 30 of the top 50 queries are employees hunting down applications. A previous client logged around 8,000 searches a month related to their teleconference service alone. 

The search team took great pleasure seeing the application was providing such value for the company. I took a different approach: Why were so many people looking for the teleconference number, especially when the search resulted in around 1000 results?

The answer? Employees were doing a work-around. Finding the phone number on the intranet was so difficult, it was quicker (they thought) to use search. The problem they faced then was a surplus of answers. 

The Art of the Work-Around

All of us have been guilty of finding ways to work around a system that doesn't mimic the way we work or provide a substantially better process. We never complain and we never tell anyone. The workaround works and we know the months business analysts and developers spent replicating a business process — we would hate to disillusion them about the outcome.

Some interesting research has been undertaken over the last few years about why people work around an application. In 2013, Eszter van der Schaft – Bartis wrote her PhD thesis on the topic. The thesis includes over 230 references to research on the same topic, dating back to the late 1980s. 

Work-arounds are clearly nothing new, but as we increasingly adopt fully digital workplaces we need to start paying much more attention to the problems. The more systems we use, the more work-arounds we may need and the time we waste could eat up a significant part of the working day (assuming we discover a succesful work-around).

This is not just a question of user interface design. The title of one recent paper illustrates the problem: "The Effect of Unmet Expectations of Information Quality on Post-Acceptance Workarounds Among Healthcare Providers." The paper considers issues in the adoption of electronic healthcare record (EHR) systems, where a work-around could have very serious consequences. Major hospitals around the world have digital workplaces that are probably more pervasive than in any commercial organization. EHR applications have been around for a decade or more, and yet workarounds are emerging as a major issue as these systems move out to primary care surgeries.

The Importance of Information Quality

A recent paper by Sven Laumer, Christian Maier and Tim Weitzel explored how a financial services business ended up with an enterprise content management system that employees routinely worked around. Their conclusion was the problem was one of information quality and not the technical performance of the system. 

CIOs are often surprised to hear to that one of the most widely adopted methodologies for assessing the performance of information systems (Delone and McLean IS success model) specifically references a dependency on information quality. The paper by Laumer et al categorizes information quality into representational and contextual. The most important of these is contextual quality, which includes completeness, timeliness, relevance and usefulness. If users of the system have concerns about these, they will find alternatives. The authors do not investigate these, but sending out an email is likely the common default.

You Can't Have a Digital Workplace Without Information Management

The issue of information quality, and the extent to which users can depend on it, are never considered in the many articles published about the digital workplace. The systems are always perfect, so what can go wrong? 

Some years ago I developed an Information Charter that companies should consider adopting and then implementing, but I appear to be a voice in the wilderness. The purpose of a digital workplace is to bring people and information closer together so that the optimum decisions can be made more quickly and with more confidence. So how can you have a digital workplace strategy without an information management strategy?

In the mean time you can use search as a diagnostic tool. A careful examination of your search query logs combined with research among users will start to identify the extent of work-arounds because the search application is the first point of call.

As a side note: some of the references above were from academic journals behind a paywall. By using Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic I was able to find open access versions of all, except the paper by Laumer and his colleagues. Technically there was nothing wrong with the journal databases, but the information was not available in a form I could use, so I found a workaround.

Do you know how prevalent work-arounds are in your organization? If not, maybe now is a good time to start looking, assuming of course you have a good search implementation and a team that can work through the analytics.