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Reply-All Leads to Gridlock

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Process improvement at work usually means using email smarter. One crucial tip for improving email usage is to use the “reply-all” feature sparingly, if at all.

Employees a the US State Department have it even worse. They’ve been warned not to use the “reply-all” feature on their email programs, as a message storm nearly took down a major internal communication systems. According to the Associated Press, an accidental press of the shift key (as in pressing control+shift+R) will invoke unspecified “disciplinary actions.”

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Responding to an email may only take a few seconds, but every address in the To, CC and BCC line corresponds to a new copy of the message. Sending one note to a thousand people already taxes resources. If even only a handful fire back using “reply-all”, thousands upon thousands more pile onto the servers all at the same time. More expert users contributed to the issue when they used “reply-all” to inform others not to use “reply-all” in the future. The AP explains that the onslaught of messages began with a mistake:

Officials said the storm started when some diplomats used the “reply-all” function to respond to a blank e-mail sent recently to many people on the department’s global address list.

Most demanded to be removed from the list while others used “reply-all” to tell their co-workers, in often less than diplomatic language, to stop responding to the entire group, the officials said.

Some then compounded the problem by trying to recall their initial replies, which generated another round of messages to the group, they said.

When organizations like the State Department suffer from embarrassing technical foul-ups, it is easy to laugh and crack jokes about government bureaucracy. The real failing in this story, however, is not just with the people who should have used  “reply” instead of “reply-all.” Management should never create giant distribution lists which anyone can use, as there is no reason for every employee to have the ability to fill a thousand inboxes with a few errant keystrokes.

Likewise, reacting to a technical failure by admonishing and threatening employees will only build apathy and discontent. When both of these elements appear in the popular press, the average citizen will likely attribute the story to incompetence. Sure, you probably shouldn’t use reply-all. But you also shouldn’t be able to accidentally email legions of people you don’t know.

The technology of email servers is complex, but the patterns of workflow that should define policies, procedures and system settings need to be clear to all key stakeholders. Tools for communication should encourage positive interaction and make it difficult for people to accidentally consume resources and waste time. Process improvement means helping companies change their culture for the benefit of all stakeholders.

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