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Words matter: why use ‘exercise’ instead of ‘test’?

By Ray Abide

In the past, I have mostly referred to the activity in which participants are assembled to work through a simulated business continuity event in order to determine their familiarity with the plan, its completeness, and perform their individual roles to recover from a given scenario as a business continuity plan test. Sometimes I have interchangeably used the term ‘exercise’ or ‘simulation’ instead of ‘test’.

As defined by Merriam-Webster Online:

  • An exercise is something that is performed or practiced to develop, improve, or display a specific capability or skill; a maneuver, operation, or drill carried out for training and discipline.
  • A test is something (as a series of questions or exercises) for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capabilities, or aptitudes of an individual or group.

The definitions are similar; in fact, notice that the term exercise appears in parentheses as part of the definition of test.

There are several reasons, why I am modifying my behavior to use ‘exercise’ and suggest that if you are involved in business continuity management, you do so as well.

These include:

  • An exercise is designed to improve fitness, health and endurance. Conversely, lack of exercise causes muscular atrophy. The same can be said of business continuity exercises. Our capabilities and awareness improve with each exercise.
  • A test implies that there is a very objective course of activity expected and that ultimately we are to judge the outcome as either a success or as a failure. The reality is that the plan is more of a recovery roadmap than a recovery recipe. The learning that occurs is more important than the result.
  • People are much more likely to give their best efforts when they understand that they are expected to learn during a simulated event, and not to simply demonstrate past learning to arrive at a pass/fail outcome.

An exercise should:

  • Allow participants to understand the plan and their respective roles.
  • Learn by action, rather than by reading. Learning can be amplified by the stress of a carefully constructed simulated emergency. The simulation creates a participation-based, interactive exercise where learning is the result.
  • A business continuity plan walkthrough is only useful to familiarize people with the plan. The goal of the walkthrough is awareness, not learning. It is useful to introduce new participants to the BCP and its related teams.
  • A good exercise, via simulation, immerses participants into a realistic, difficult situation and requires them to take action.
  • Each successive exercise should increase in complexity, building on past exercises and exploring past weaknesses that have been addressed since the last exercise.

If you subscribe to the theory that ‘experience is the best teacher’ but you also believe that an actual emergency is not the best classroom, then a carefully constructed, realistic simulation for an exercise provides the best available learning opportunity. It is important to select a scenario that is likely to occur. A good place to source a likely scenario is your risk assessment. It is also important to allow sufficient time for people to practice their roles during the exercise. This serves to strengthen the recovery teams.

It is equally important to surface gaps and weaknesses in the plan then make improvements before an actual emergency.

The approach should follow a cycle of: Exercise, Learn, and Improve. Sufficient time must be allotted to create the scenario that will support learning, to document the activities during the exercise, then to analyze the results afterward to determine potential flaws that require corrective action, and make plan improvements that enhance the plan.

When a simulation is presented as above, would you rather be included in an ‘exercise’ or a ‘test’?

The author:

Ray Abide is responsible for the business continuity program for a major financial services company and is a Certified Business Continuity Professional and Certified Public Accountant. Ray lives in Dallas, Texas. He may be contacted at www.linkedin.com/in/rayabide or www.rayabide.com.

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•Date: 5th July 2013 • US/World •Type: Article • Topic: BC exercising

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