Business continuity behavioural insights - a tale from three continents

Published: Thursday, 01 April 2021 08:34

This article by Patrick Roberts and Peter Noble highlights five behavioural insights that can be applied to any organization trying to manage change and uncertainty as we slowly move towards a post pandemic world. There is no magic algorithm, but these reflections will assist organizations develop and revise their continuity plans.

The story

What is the common denominator of a research station in West Africa subject to political instability, floods, and daily power outages; an Australian University breaking into the world’s top 50 by driving engagement, growth, and efficiency; and a UK Research Council undergoing significant transformation and keeping the show on the road throughout COVID-19? All three institutions have implemented business continuity strategies and developed plans to respond to both predictable and unpredictable disruptions in an increasingly uncertain world. We have observed and tested these insights from the developed to the developing world over the past decade; recognising that the pace of change on organizations today has never been greater, as Boards seek greater assurance on the management of risk.

Five behavioural insights

Uncertainty is more predictable than you might think

COVID-19 has impacted on health and wealth in Africa, Australia, and the UK, at different levels and in different ways. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, one of the most significant risks to the Australian higher education sector was a severe downturn in Asian economies, leading to a dramatic fall in overseas students attending Australian universities and a consequent significant loss of revenue. So, even ignoring the risk of a pandemic (which is reasonably predictable from historical data); we knew that we needed to be prepared for a significant fall in revenues. One impact of COVID-19 is that many Australian universities have had to take tough decisions as income streams dried up from international students. From this illustration, we have found a broader pattern emerging: if we focus on the impacts of disruption, rather than the root causes, then continuity planning becomes a lot simpler.

As human beings we tend to be creatures of the present rather than the future. Learning from our mistakes is helpful but learning from other peoples’ mistakes is much better (and cheaper). Pragmatically the post-COVID era (if there is one!) highlights the importance of us tracking those minor incidents and near misses which may result in seismic impact for institutions in the future. Looking outwards beyond one’s own organization is critical: if it has happened elsewhere it can happen to you; and if it has happened to you, it can happen again.

Beyond engagement to involvement

In each of the organizations from our field work, we were struck by the wide variation in how well business continuity took hold across the workforce; working across three continents, we also saw how this varied across different cultures. A first glimpse might indicate that effective arrangements for business continuity are all about resources: Australia and the UK have GDP per capita of $57k and S42k respectively compared to Gambia’s at $700. Yet our experience was that the resourcefulness of the African community, and their thirst to engage and learn, made up for this imbalance in resources. Involved employees actively participate in plan development rather than passively accepting a fait accompli, and are willing to challenge the status quo. An open style of communication provided strong feedback in reviewing our plans and helped to ensure that everyone was valued for their unique and diverse contribution. Yes, expert advice on tools and frameworks is important; but without strong involvement at the onset of planning, we found that individuals and teams struggle to stay committed to a business continuity ethos, particularly with downstream implementation. We found that effective leaders were strongly connected to the mood of staff in their institution, and rapidly grasped the significance of staff and community involvement, which is essential to getting robust continuity plans in place.

Planning needs to balance long-term and short-term

Despite different business continuity challenges facing these different institutions, one common planning behaviour is to focus on managing immediate incidents rather than restoring the functionality of the organization in the long term. Focusing on these tactical, short-term, responses is understandable; but needs to be balanced with strategic considerations for the long term. We also noticed that continuity plans tend to focus on matters prevalent to the institution over the next year, rather than 5-10 years. Longer-term, strategic thinking needs to be encouraged through positive engagement with organizational leaders; to understand the core products and services and how these may change over time as the environment in which they are delivered evolves. We have found that the best plans result where institutions have combined a strong ‘bottom-up’ tactical approach with a ‘top-down’ strategic approach. During an incident, this balance between short-term and long-term considerations needs to be maintained through an effective command structure, such as the widespread Gold/Silver/Bronze which provides two-way interaction between different levels of command.

Success is about adjusting when you get it wrong or when things do not go to plan!

In each of these three examples we made mistakes when formulating and implementing plans. An old cliché informs us that mistakes provide that opportunity to learn. In reality, there are many reasons why business continuity plans do not achieve their full penetration, whether it relates to the level of executive buy-in; the quality of plans; or community engagement. One of our key behavioural insights is that successful planning aligns to the culture and tone that is set by the institution and its capability to listen and act. We believe this is all about leaders connecting culturally to their communities and adapting their continuity plans when they are not working. They can do this in three ways: firstly, by asking for and taking advice from others (both outside experts and their own teams); secondly, by standing-back and slowing down, regrouping when it appears that the direction is wrong and never blaming others; and thirdly, they take the time to periodically pause, reflect, and adjust their plans. These attributes have been critical in how institutions have successfully responded to COVID-19.

Business continuity needs to be fun to be effective

Our initial conversations with institutions often draw glazed eyes when discussing continuity planning with staff and leaders. Some people react instinctively against what they perceive as pointless bureaucracy and documentation; others argue that the sort of disruptive scenarios that business continuity can mitigate will never happen here, and if it does happen, the institution will successfully respond and tackle it, as it always does! COVID-19 has hopefully dispelled this myth!

We have found that the most important ingredient for successful continuity planning is people having fun in the process of this serious and important exercise. Getting students in Australia to put forward potential incident scenarios to senior management that they are concerned about; having conversations with African elders on alternate ways to cope with flood and power outages; and providing live daily interactive discussions across UK Research Councils means that everyone’s voice is heard, using positive channels to have fun and promote strong engagement. Such approaches, enable institutions to move at pace and scale with their plans, rather than exclusively focusing on issuing policy directives. Inviting and exposing staff to external people helps staff reflect in such exercises, providing meaningful challenge and support. Such exercises bring continuity alive rather than provide a mechanical process.

Closing reflections

COVID-19 has brought both positive and negative impacts on how we work and live our lives. While there is no panacea, we can guarantee that different business continuity scenarios will land on our desk at some time in the future, we do not know what or when; but we do know how important people will be, as and when we have to respond. We hope that these behavioural insights can help us all to be more effective in mobilising and empowering people to support continuity planning; we also hope that some of these observations might trigger your own personal reflections, at present and in the future.

The authors

Patrick Roberts is a Director of Cambridge Risk Solutions Ltd
Peter Noble is the Chief Operating Officer of Newcastle Health Innovation Partners

Patrick and Peter have jointly tackled business continuity projects of varying size and complexity across the world.