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In an article aimed at people new to business continuity and disaster recovery, Mitch Mitchell explains what the difference between these two vital disciplines is and why it is a mistake to use the two terms interchangeably.

In a nutshell, business continuity focuses on maintaining vital operations during disruptions, while disaster recovery refers to restoring data and infrastructure.

The terms business continuity and disaster recovery are often used interchangeably, but they are different things. Although closely related and often working in tandem, the disciplines have distinct goals, both of which address interruptions to mission-critical lines of business. It is essential, however, that stakeholders understand the differences between the two and how to deploy both business continuity and disaster recovery planning in a unified manner.

What is business continuity?

Business continuity is exactly what it sounds like – a way of addressing any disruption to business operations until the underlying problem can be resolved. During the pandemic, for example, businesses faced enormous pressure to adopt temporary measures that would allow them to continue their operations as best as possible. In this case, business continuity often involved giving employees the tools required for them to work from home.

Business continuity involves a planning process, the outcome of which is a business continuity plan. This normally begins with a risk assessment and a business impact analysis. Together, these outputs help stakeholders determine the required scope of the business continuity plan, while also taking into consideration any regulatory or legal implications. Many business continuity plans focus heavily on IT and communications systems, given the central role they play in most businesses.

Business continuity plans must take into account all the possible risks facing the organization, such as natural disasters, cyber attacks, and service outages. The goal of business continuity is not to resolve these problems, but to keep mission-critical operations running as smoothly as possible during the period of disruption. Planning also involves proactively mitigating risks, such as by maintaining redundant computing systems and real-time copies of your data.

What is disaster recovery?

Whereas business continuity concerns working through a disruptive event, disaster recovery planning is all about resolving the underlying issue, be it a data breach, system failure, or any other unexpected event. As such, it focuses on the immediacy of an undesired event and often happens alongside business continuity. A disaster recovery process comprises several stages: from identifying the source of the incident to applying various ways to fix it. To that end, it does not only concern data recovery, but also the recovery of damaged or malfunctioning hardware and software applications.

Deadlines play a central role in disaster recovery planning, since any business can only afford to lose so much time or data. The two key parameters are your recovery time objective (RTO) and recovery point objective (RPO), both of which concern the operation of critical business functions and the availability of essential data. Your RTO refers to the maximum amount of time it should take to resolve a problem, while the RPO refers to the maximum amount of data your business can afford to lose.

As is the case with business continuity planning, prioritisation is vital in disaster recovery planning. This is why you need to assign different RTO and RPO values to different applications and systems. For example, your company might be able to lose access to non-essential marketing systems or data for a few days or weeks, but the same probably cannot be said of payroll systems and data. All assets must be classified in terms of how essential they are to your business, before being prioritised accordingly.

Why businesses need both business continuity and disaster recovery

The main difference between business continuity and disaster recovery is when each plan of action takes effect. Whereas business continuity is about maintaining functional operations, a disaster recovery plan focuses on returning to normal within a given timeframe. To that end, it is also accurate to consider disaster recovery planning as a subset of the broader continuum that is business continuity planning.

Although both plans are closely related, they need not necessarily be used at the same time. For example, in the case of a minor disruption, it might not even be necessary to activate your business continuity plan. If you have automated failovers and real-time data backups, then the disaster recovery plan will likely be enough. However, for longer-lasting and more complicated disruptions, business continuity plan activation is a must.

Things can also work the other way around, as they did for businesses during the pandemic. If, for example, your business faces a longer-term disruption, such as a public relations crisis or a lasting shortage of staff, your business continuity plan should kick in to minimise damage to your business. By contrast, disaster recovery planning largely focuses on the immediacy of an acute disruption, such as a data breach or network outage.

In many cases, both plans will overlap one another. Take a natural disaster, such as a flood, for example. Having your office flooded could result in immediate damage or destruction to your data and systems, in which case they will need to be recovered as soon as possible. That said, it might take weeks or even months before your office can be rendered workable again, hence the need for business continuity to help you weather the storm in the meantime.

The case for an all-in-one solution

The close relationship between business continuity and disaster recovery planning means that both are likely to be more effective if they are managed in a single, cohesive environment. An integrated approach offers the means to enhance and protect mission-critical operations and gain a granular view into the various risks that face them. Of course, these risks and the responses to them must also be regularly reviewed and your plans updated as appropriate.

An integrated management system provides even broader coverage by keeping all essential business data in a centrally managed location. For example, integration with human resources and task-management systems makes it easier to assign and schedule people and assets to recovery and continuity operations. Similarly, integration with governance, risk management, and compliance (GRC) solutions can help ensure that your business continuity and disaster recovery plans align with the demands of regulatory compliance and broader enterprise risk management.

The most effective approach to business continuity and disaster recovery is to have both seamlessly integrated into your organizational culture and broader technology environment. With a complete, end-to-end solution, you can gain complete visibility into your business processes, develop and maintain your plans, and implement them without a hitch.

The author

Mitch Mitchell is a founder of ContinuSys, which is an integrated business management system (IBMS) that helps organizations become resilient against short and long-term disruptions.

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Business continuity?

Business continuity can be defined as 'the processes, procedures, decisions and activities to ensure that an organization can continue to function through an operational interruption'. Read more about the basics of business continuity here.

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