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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 23 * December 10, 2001

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The Day the County Stood Still

This is a true life adventure into the wonders of e-mail. More importantly, its real purpose is to issue what the HR Doctor’s friends in law enforcement would call a “BOLO” — a “be on the lookout” — for technology gone awry. How ironic that this warning would come from a “techno-phile” such as the HR Doctor!

Technology is fascinating. It can extend human knowledge, be a springboard to new opportunities to share, to play and to grow. It can be a bridge between peoples who speak different languages, live continents apart, practice different religions and have never met. Or, it can bridge wide gaps which can exist between people who live just a few miles away from each other. It can enable the disabled and be more powerful at opening doors to possibility than any other key available to us, except perhaps the key found within each person’s spirit!

Within public agencies, we see a world far removed from the one which existed only a couple of decades ago — in offices which used carbon paper and messengers, rather than e-mails and high speed laser printers. This rather recent past was a time before fax machines and a time when lithograph machines produced copies. Perhaps, the HR Doctor should take a moment to define carbon paper. Well, never mind, I’m sure it’s available for viewing in a display at the Smithsonian! By the way, despite a diligent advanced search in the online catalog of Office Depot, carbon paper was not to be found!

The far greater capacity to communicate, which is now available to government agencies, can sometimes create unexpected events. Take the example of one modern and large county — which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent. This county, like many, uses or over-uses, e-mails. Specifically, it uses the e-mail feature that allows an employee to send a message to “everyone” in the entire organization with the click of one button. You know the feature — it has probably made you crazy at times.

Once upon a time, the brave county administrator, and many others in the organization, became justifiably tired of pointless “everyone” e-mails about such compelling subjects as the new stock of paper clips that had just arrived in purchasing, or about the fact that one distant field office of Public Works would be closed for repairs for two hours, etc.

In fact, the annoyance rather regularly evolved into an HR issue when some errant employee used these everyone e-mails to send messages to one and all about his religious passion at holiday time, or the romantic note intended to capture the attention of one person and, instead, ending up on 2000 PCs. So, using the power and majesty of the county administrator’s office, this concerned colleague sent out an e-mail (to “everyone,” of course) ordering that, effective immediately, there should be no more “everyone” e-mails, except for those sent by a select few senior managers.

What happened next was material for a sci-fi movie — or, at the very least, an HR Doctor article. It was an example of what the British call the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” We might call it “Murphy’s Law.”

The outcome occurred because there is another and equally convenient feature in the modern e-mail software. That feature is to automatically notify the sender as well as those copied, that the person is “out of the office,” perhaps on vacation, etc. What happened next was that the everyone e-mail banning any future everyone e-mail encountered a great many employees who were on vacation. The “notification” feature then performed flawlessly sending word back to “everyone” that so and so employee was out of the office. In turn, the notifications went to other employees — including the original ones on vacation. That, of course, triggered additional “out of the office” everyone e-mails, and so on, and so on.

Recalling one of the HR Doctor’s favorite movies, ripe with metaphors, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the resulting brief organizational paralysis — and moment of humor — was something to behold. Unfortunately, even the entire county workforce uttering in unison “Klaatu barada nikto” would not have solved this problem.

The moral of the story is to love your technology — but, always follow the lessons of the law enforcement maxim “always have backup”… and I don’t mean on the hard drive this time!

Best wishes to “everyone,”


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