Notes: Alter, S. (2014). Theory of Workarounds.

Alter, S. (2014). Theory of Workarounds. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 34, 1041-1066.


Although mentioned frequently in the organization, management, public administration, and technology literatures, workarounds are understudied and undertheorized. This article provides an integrated theory of workarounds that describes how and why workarounds are created. The theory covers most types of workarounds and most situations in which workarounds occur in operational systems. This theory is based on a broad but useful definition of workaround that clarifies the preconditions for the occurrence of a workaround. The literature review is organized around a diagram that combines the five “voices” in the literature of workarounds. That diagram is modeled after the diagram summarizing Orton and Weick’s [1990] loose coupling theory, which identified and combined five similar voices in the literature about loose coupling. Building on that basis, the theory of workarounds is a process theory driven by the interaction of key factors that determine whether possible workarounds are considered and how they are executed. This theory is useful for classifying workarounds and analyzing how they occur, for understanding compliance and noncompliance to methods and management mandates, for incorporating consideration of possible workarounds into systems analysis and design, and for studying how workarounds and other adaptations sometimes lead to larger planned changes in systems.


Describes themes in organizational processes that result in workarounds to adapt/overcome to problems and obstacles in the workplace.

Workarounds may occur when cumbersome processes seem too slow, when information required by idealized processes is not available, when technologies malfunction, when situational constraints or anomalies make it difficult to perform work activities, when personal goals conflict with organizational goals, and when people feel motivated to bypass or undermine processes or decision criteria mandated by corporate management, labor agreements, industrial standards, or government regulations. Sometimes workarounds are viewed as both unremarkable and essential for performing everyday work. Sometimes they are viewed as questionable, undesirable, hazardous, and even unethical or illegal violations of procedures and responsibilities.

Temporal aspect - from immediate/short-term to longer-term improvisations:

A temporal view of workarounds shows the progression from improvisation and bricolage to emergent and planned change.

Definition of “workaround”:

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.

Types of workarounds:

  • overcome inadequate IT functionality - shadow IT
  • bypass obstacles built into existing routines
  • bypass or overcome transient obstacles due to anomalies or mishaps - software’s down - go to Plan B…
  • respond to mishaps with quick fixes - something goes wrong, and people have to act quickly to fix it, before existing processes could have dealt with it
  • augment existing routines without developing new resouces
  • substitute for unavailable or inadequate resources
  • design and implement new resources - develop and implement software workarounds, shadow systems
  • prevent mishaps
  • pretend to comply
  • lie, cheat, steal for personal benefit
  • collude for mutual benefit

Direct effects of workarounds

  • continuation of work despite obstacles, mishaps, or anomalies
  • creation of hazards, inefficiencies, or errors - workaround adds risk
  • impacts on subsequent activities - workaround in one area breaks something else
  • compliance or noncompliance with management intentions

Perspectives on workarounds

  • as necessary activities in everyday life - “local workarounds, tinkering and ‘situated improvisations’ are not anomalies or design shortcomings but constitutive elements of working technologies” - Leonardi (2011)1
  • as creative acts
  • as source of future improvements
  • as quick fixes that don’t go away - they can become entrenched, and then unplanned/unsupported workflows become de facto standards
  • as add-ons, shadow systems, feral systems
  • as inefficiencies or hazards
  • as a means for maintaining appearances
  • as resistance
  • as distortions or subterfuge

Organizational challenges and dilemmas related to workarounds

  • Operating despite exceptions, built-in obstacles, and incomplete specifications
  • Balancing interpretive flexibility versus management control - allows work system participants to use common sense and ingenuity in achieving legitimate objectives while also recognizing and honoring necessary controls
  • Balancing personal, local, and organizational interests - address local goals within organizations
  • Permitting and learning from emergent change - many workarounds provide learning that may be an important starting point for emergent change and planned change. workarounds overcome problems that are built into routines and/or mandated practices

  1. Leonardi, P.M. (2011) “When Flexible Routines Meet Flexible Technologies: Affordance, Constraint, and the Imbrication of Human and Material Agencies”, MIS Quarterly, (35), pp. 147–167. ↩︎

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