Saturday, January 31, 2009

Good or bad, we live and work in an increasingly binary world.

More and more I notice our collective bipolar mentality. Everything is completely one extreme or another, with no time or thought put into the idea that there might be something much more realistic and reasonable in-between. It's black or it's white. You're conservative or you're liberal. It's all the way on or it's shut completely off. It's awesomely great or it's despairingly terrible.

What happened to the various shades and levels of gray, moderation and good? Perhaps this is a result of our increasingly computer-centric boolean society, where everything at it's core can be distilled down to one's and zero's, on and off, yes or no - with nothing in-between. But the organic world has never worked that way, and I think maybe we're seeing the signs that people have forgotten to look for the compromise.

One case in point, among many: A blog article today at TechCrunch reports that management at a large company, Nielson, has decided to remove the Reply-All button from all instances of outlook. Apparently some executive committee decided this would reduce waste and increase productivity. Certainly they must be right: It's a technology problem, right? Whoever the person was that thought of the reply-all concept originally couldn't possibly have been thinking about the consequences of including this feature. They must have been misguided, unknowing and wrong.

Or were they?

To take such drastic action as to completely remove the reply-all button from Outlook seems - well - misguided, unknowing and wrong. It takes a people problem, assumes (incorrectly) that it's a technology problem, and in the end creates a new - and potentially larger - business problem.

Don't get me wrong. I hate rampant reply-all email threads as much as anyone, maybe even more so. I especially dislike the passive-aggressive, nasty, insolent and rude behavior that people often use (often, ironically, in a reply-all email) to try to tell people how much they dislike email spam. If I'm copied on a business topic thread that I don't feel the need to review and would especially like to avoid, I don't like it. But I really hate it when people include me on their angry extension of the thread where they insult the original sender and complain. At least the original thread had a business purpose.

As a senior manager, several times I've replied-to-all to say "This thread is closed, please restrict the distribution of future info those those who are needed." In every case, the goal was to get people to stop and think. It almost always worked.

Now, I can see where accidental reply-all's and excess email would business and technology people to look for a way to just make it stop. I'm not saying there's not a problem to be solved - quite the contrary. But reply-all also provides a legitimate and useful piece of business functionality, one that makes people more efficient and in many cases ensures all the right people are in the loop.

The real problem here is people-related: There's a time and a place for using reply-all, and when people get lazy or don't think things through, the situation can become spammy, annoying and time-consuming. When it's useful it's very useful. When its misused it's a real pain.

Given that fact, taking the all-or-nothing, binary technology approach and removing the functionality entirely seems to be a poor method for dealing with is - at it's root - a people behavior problem.

In fact, for years there have been other options available. One example is the Reply to All Monitor (pay software, try code RA26BA50 for a possible 50% price reduction). There are other apps out there, as well. If you don't want to buy software, you can also program some VBA code to modify Outlook's behavior and prompt the user before they can send ("Are you sure you want to reply-all?"). Plus, there are a variety of ways to configure all your Outlook instances to use a plugin or your own VBA code. Of course, if you're removing the reply-all button from all the Outlook instances at a company, you probably already know this.

Imagine: Someone else might have had this problem and found a smart way to solve it. I guess the thing that really bothers me is what looks and feels like a reactive decision, likely made by people without complete information. Do you really want to completely disable all reply-all's, or is the true intent and desire to try to get people to think before they send, while allowing reply-all in cases where it makes sense?

Anyhow, I think you get the point. You can't really solve people problems with technology. Instead we should use technology to try to support people in behaving in the way we need then to. But in the end, it's all about the person's behavior, not the computer's.

Or you could say, "Buttons don't reply-to-all, people reply-to-all."

Add/Read: Comments [6]
Tech | Things that Suck
Saturday, January 31, 2009 1:20:41 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
#  Trackback

Referred by: [Referral]
Saturday, January 31, 2009 6:47:55 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
The software you suggest doesn't address the problem, it just makes it marginally more inefficient to achieve the same behavior.

The problem, as you say, is a people problem. People don't selectively reduce.

A better solution might be to have a popup upon click of reply all that requires you to selectively add people back into the conversation by clicking their name.
Saturday, January 31, 2009 11:58:29 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
@Eric - Good point. I need to refresh my memory on what can be done with VBA in Outlook. As I recall, I think it was a little limited in this specific area. An add-in that would do what you suggest (or even better, one that an enterprise could configure to whatever behavior was preferred for that org) would be terrific.
Sunday, February 01, 2009 5:23:41 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
To disable Reply To All on a per message basis, so that the recipients cannot click the button or select the option, try this VBA code:

ActiveInspector.CurrentItem.Actions("Reply to All").Enabled = False

If you wanted to be prompted on all your outgoing messages, this would work:

Private Sub Application_ItemSend(ByVal Item As Object, Cancel As Boolean)
Dim DisableReplyToAll As VbMsgBoxResult
DisableReplyToAll = MsgBox("Would you like to disable 'Reply To All'?", _
vbYesNo + vbDefaultButton1)
Select Case DisableReplyToAll
Case vbYes
ActiveInspector.CurrentItem.Actions("Reply to All").Enabled = False
Case Else
End Select
End Sub

Sunday, February 01, 2009 2:36:38 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I wonder how much time and money the "executive committee" spent on this. I would guess it was more than was wasted by the employees deleting messages they didn't want plus the lost time that is now being spent sending messages one at a time to 7 people.

Reminds me of when our company President and CFO would spend a combined hour tracking down the source of a $2 FedEx charge that 99% of the time was completely legitimate. It would have been cheaper in lost productivity to just pay it without asking any questions.

But as you say, you can't solve personnel problems with technology.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009 4:05:21 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Instead of a solution, they've taken a classic left turn down the command-and-control "my way or the highway" response to an easy to fix problem! Obviously communication is totally foreign to them and they have no respect for their employees ability to think.

In most modern enterprises a new, wild concept called The Intranet has taken hold. In this brave new world, people respond to multiple readers with a write once read many blog, discussion or WIKI. It's crazy stuff called WEB 2.0!

Users copy and paste the URL of this single response --and point people----> to where the action is... outside of email. Can you imagine a world like this? As you said, it's not technology, it's behavior.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009 9:17:22 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Anyway, the best option to avoid problems with outlook is OutlookFIX allows recover deleted e mail
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