A business continuity plan for all seasons

Get free weekly news by e-mailThe next incident is always the one you have not thought of! Charlie Maclean-Bristol suggests some ways to ensure that your business continuity plan can cope with unanticipated incidents.

We cannot prepare for all incidents, so it is important to have a robust incident management process in place which can deal with any incident which comes along. Nassim Taleb makes the case in his book ‘The Black Swan’ for not planning for black swans. He argues that “most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless.” How can we plan for something we don't know about or have a probability for? Thinking about the recent European ash cloud crisis as an example of such an incident, here are some suggestions:

1) There are certain incidents that stop your business and no contingency plan or strategy can do anything about it. If you are an airport and you have no planes flying, you have no customers in your airport and therefore no revenue. Business continuity plans can cover loss of part of your buildings but, if there are no passengers, you have to sit and wait until they return. What you can do in the meantime is to communicate with your customers and keep them up to date. While this will not take all your customers’ pain away; it will avoid the frustration which builds up when customers don’t have the information that they feel they need; and means that they are less likely to blame you for the situation.

Use all the communication means at your disposal. Organizations have very sophisticated ways of marketing to their customers using all the traditional marketing means as well as social media. Use all these tools to keep your customers informed: make sure your website is constantly updated, as well as Twitter and your Facebook page; send out customer letters; put questions and answers on your website and SMS them; make sure that there is no chance of people not knowing what is going on. If there is no new information, tell your customers this. Finally, make sure that your external message is coordinated, as contradictory messages anger your customers as much as no information.

2) The ash crisis and the severe weather earlier in the year are classic examples of creeping crises. You think they are just about to end, so you don’t invoke your business continuity plans. When an incident occurs, have the conviction to get your plan invoked and then think through the consequences if the incident is prolonged. Even if the incident then ends, you have reminded people about business continuity and practised the plan. The worst thing you can find is that you are a week into the incident, you have yet to invoke your plan and there is the dawning realisation that the incident is worse than you thought and you should have invoked it a week ago.

3) Issue guidance to managers early on about how the company views the incident. Staff unable to work and their managers will want to know the organization’s policy of whether, due to their absence, they will have to take paid leave, unpaid leave, or make up the time. Robust guidance is needed and this needs to be issued at the beginning of any incident rather than some way into it. Clear guidance will help managers and staff understand the organization’s policy and avoid different managers making up their own rules for their staff.

4) As part of the business continuity process, organizations should understand their supply chain and the types of incident which could affect it. Horizon scanning should be carried out so that the impact of, for example, a no-fly zone over Europe, can be quickly identified and its effect on perhaps the delay of a key component in a manufacturing process or a new batch of laptops being flown in from China.

5) May organizations have looked at working from home as a way of mitigating the risk of not being able to get into places of work. Should this technology be expanded to work from any location so that staff stranded abroad can log into their corporate systems and continue to work without the need to take the company laptop on holiday just in case?

6) Know your dependencies and the organizations that could have an impact on your ability to operate. We saw in the ash cloud incident the absolute reliance on NATS and the Met Office of the airlines to make fly/no fly decisions. I am not privy to the relationship between these parties and I suspect it varies. If you have a body or a regulator which can have a major impact on your organization’s ability to operate, get to know them. Having somebody who you know on a first name basis can perhaps give you more information than is available in the public domain, which can greatly improve your decision-making and allow you to perhaps lobby the organization or at least make your point on the incident.

7) Do not underestimate the knock-on effect of an incident on your business. More than 150,000 American Express travel customers were delayed or otherwise affected by the ash cloud; travel counsellors “used creativity, flexibility and persistence – and more than 12,000 hours of overtime” to get travellers home or to change travel plans, and travel counsellors made and received more than 1 million calls during the crisis, representing a 60 percent increase globally over what is typical for the time of year. Identify the likely impacts early and ensure that there are enough staff available to help the organization to meet the challenge.

8) Always think opportunity. The ash cloud incident provided an excuse to save money (and the environment) by taking less company trips and gave the chance to experiment with virtual meetings and video conferencing. Could these crisis measures actually provide a better way of day-to-day working? Would it make sense to continue to buy local to avoid long supply chains; or to adopt more flexible ways of working? Don’t restrict your post-incident review to just ways to improve your crisis response; look at the lessons learned for wider improvements to the business.

Author: Charlie Maclean-Bristol, head of training, Business Continuity Training Ltd. www.b-c-training.co.uk

•Date: 25th June 2010 • Region: UK/World •Type: Article •Topic: BC general
Rate this article or make a comment - click here

Copyright 2010 Portal Publishing LtdPrivacy policyContact usSite mapNavigation help