Research Insights

When global systems don't fit local realities, employees may resist and find other ways to get their work done!

By Professor Robert Davison

Corporate policy often requires that employees use specific IT applications regardless of whether those applications actually fit employees' needs. If the fit is not good, employees may choose to work around those aspects of the IT that they deem inadequate, particularly if non-compliant applications provide greater capability to support their work. We investigated how employees in the Hong Kong warehouse of a global retail firm, which we call Scatex (with 200,000 employees worldwide), coordinate their efforts to develop and maintain workarounds that are not compliant with corporate policy, yet which are essential for performing work efficiently and for producing effective outcomes, including satisfying customers. At the time of the research (in mid-2018), the employees had developed, applied and fine tuned these workarounds for 18 months.

The software that the employees worked around is Microsoft's Navision, an enterprise system that is used to manage a variety of working processes, such as order and inventory management, inbound shipping (from suppliers) and outbound shipping (to customers). We learnt that the implementation was severely delayed because the local management office had long argued that unique characteristics of the local environment had a poor fit with Navision. These objections were acknowledged by Scatex's global ERP project team, yet were not addressed in the initial phase of Navision implementation.

We interviewed 31 employees in the warehouse at all levels (from warehouse manager downwards) and asked them to describe their work, explain the role of Navision in this work, describe problems that they encountered with Navision, before moving on to the workarounds that they used to resolve those problems. Their responses revealed extensive workaround behaviour and a singular reliance on Microsoft Excel in place of Navision. They explained that Navision did not include the functionality to perform certain tasks, so they used Excel to do so. For instance, inventory control staff extracted data from Navision, then manipulated it with Excel in order to pick and pack customer orders before delivery. Meanwhile, customer delivery staff extracted data from Navision, manipulated it with an Excel plan for delivery and created a delivery list for the outsourced delivery contractors. The warehouse manager estimated that 30-40% of processes required workarounds.

It was notable that employees coordinated the workarounds carefully for quality and reliability. They developed a training manual for workarounds with standard operating procedures. The workarounds are expected to persist indefinitely as Scatex indicated that customisation of Navision is not an option. Finally, the workarounds were developed "in full view," without any attempt to conceal them.

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