Last week there was quite an uproar over an Ad Agency HR executive accidentally sending out an e-mail to their entire staff divulging news of upcoming layoffs. It’s an excellent example of how an honest mistake can cause a tremendous amount of pain, but it’s also an excellent example of how technology can’t be expected to solve every problem or prevent mistakes.
It brings to mind the early days of using computers in this industry when spell checkers would miss something, and we’d be asked why the technology failed. We’d become so accustomed to relying on the technology, that we stopped actually reading our copy to proof for errors.
One of the things about this story which encourages me is the follow-up, in which IT is significantly absent from the story. That’s a good thing. The fact of the matter is this isn’t about IT, and we shouldn’t be looking for technology to prevent this sort of error. We’d like to think that such a solution exists, but the fact of the matter is that there are many cases in which we’ve simply got to be careful. This could just have easily come about as the result of leaving a document lying around on a copier, or faxing it to the wrong number, neither of which would necessarily be viewed as a technological breakdown. Mistakes are going to happen, and unfortunately technology can compound these mistakes, significantly faster than leaving a paper lying around.
Are there technological solutions to this problem? Maybe there are. I’m skeptical. Having heard a couple suggestions already, they still have holes. It always seems to come back to a people issue. An HR executive has got to be extremely careful when crafting this sort of message using e-mail. They should be double and triple checking their addressees before ever hitting the send button. The best way to combat those mistakes is by learning these lessons, and in teaching our users to be thoughtful and careful when using the technology. It’s a tough lesson to learn the hard way.