Information Overload Chronicles: Hit ‘Reply to All,’ Shut Down U.K. National Health Service

A street in London

By Jonathan Spira on 14 November 2016
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Many of our readers know that, in my former life, I was chief analyst at a think tank that focused on the issue of Information Overload. While it’s no longer my job to be the poster child for combating this scourge, it is a topic that I follow avidly and continue to speak about, both to the media and at conferences. It therefore behooves me to inform our readers of what transpired earlier today.

One of the biggest problems in the field is two-fold: knowledge workers frequently send unnecessary e-mails as an acknowledgement, namely of the “Great!” or “Thanks!” variety, and users tend to mindlessly hit the reply-to-all button assuming that more is better.

These issues, compounded with the fact that almost no e-mail systems prevent users from e-mailing hundreds of thousands of people let alone including them in a reply, culminated with an unprecedented e-mail system meltdown that brought health services in the United Kingdom to a full stop.

Earlier today, an e-mail created by an employee at the National Health Service in the United Kingdom accidentally went to 840,000 employees there. The problem didn’t stop there: many employees clicked “reply to all” and responded, thereby compounding the problem. As all e-mail communications ground to a halt, users spoke of an “avalanche” of e-mail messages.

“It’s driving me bananas,” one physician told the BBC in an interview, a line reminiscent of the video I made for my book, Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, when it came out.

The agency admitted in a statement that some e-mail accounts were “operating slowly,” an understatement in light of what was transpiring. However, it did delete the distribution list that the offending user accidentally used, thereby stopping further replies-to-all from taking place.

Will companies take steps to put circuit breakers in place to stop future occurrences of this kind of problem? It’s doubtful but doing nothing will just allow this to happen again and again.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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