Workaround Wars

In hand-to-hand combat between an organization’s tech department and the user, I’d put my money on the user. No matter how intelligently designed an application is, it can rarely make the user do what the user does not want to do. So what happens? You enter the Workaround Wars.

Here are some examples from law firms in Canada and the US that illustrate the Workaround Wars:

– The document management system’s profile page requires that the user assign a document type to each document created. So the user unhappy with this requirement lodges a protest by choosing “other” or “memo” (or whatever appears first in the alphabetical list) as the DocType for every document rather than scrolling through the long list of permitted DocTypes to find the most appropriate one.

– The e-mail system automatically deletes e-mails from inboxes after a certain number of days, in order to encourage users to file those e-mails appropriately in the firm’s central filing (or records) system. However, recalcitrant lawyers simply stuff their e-mails in their personal Outlook folders, thereby saving the messages from deletion and undermining the firm’s central filing policy in one fell swoop.

I’ve heard variations of these stories from colleagues in law firms all over the world. It’s as if the official policies and procedures are invitations for lawyers to exercise their creativity in defense of nonconformity. It’s enough to send a CTO screaming into the nearest padded cell.

So what does this mean for the knowledge manager? Be very worried when you find you are spending a lot of time and money to create the new cool knowledge management application. If that dream system of yours requires users to change their behavior in any meaningful way, they will fight you tooth and nail. And if you insist, they will compromise your cherished system with careless compliance. (Remember those rogue document types?) Then your KM app will be another casualty of the Workaround Wars.

What’s the alternative? KM guerrilla warfare. Don’t try a frontal assault on the user. Instead, sneak up on their side and target some small inefficiencies. Sensible incremental changes made over time this way can result in significant improvement to the overall enterprise. You may not win a lot of KM or tech prizes for this approach, but you will notice the difference within your organization.

Of course, every so often a colleague at another firm will pull off an amazing coup: creating the killer KM app that actually enjoys widespread adoption. But if you pay attention, you’ll realize those happen very rarely and require an alignment of the stars, not to mention amazing levels of cooperation within a firm. So, until you’ve mastered astronomy, focus on incremental changes that don’t incite user rebellion and avoid the Workaround Wars.

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