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Business continuity plans and strategies require the involvement of many different members of your organization, but to be effective during a crisis, these individuals need to have practiced their roles. This is where business continuity exercising comes in, as Julie Miranto explains…

What is a business continuity exercise and why are they important?

Running business continuity exercises gives the executive leadership team of an organization and other designated incident responders the opportunity to play out realistic disaster scenarios that could disrupt their regular business. How would they react? Do they have a thorough understanding of the incident response plans and protocol in place, and can they effectively act in a moment of crisis? Exercises put business continuity plans and their application to the test.

During exercises, plan participants face various problems to solve as if disaster was striking in real-time. Depending on your company’s unique goals, multiple types of exercises could be effective.

Ultimately, the goal is for organizational leaders and plan participants to become familiar with business continuity strategies. These exercises also help companies improve their plans to better address the organization’s current needs. 

Many people in an organization play a part in business continuity, whether they realize it or not. From executives to human resource teams to IT specialists, business continuity plans often involve people at all levels of an organization.

Business continuity exercises give everyone involved an opportunity to come together and practice their responsibilities in case of an emergency.

Time, effort, and funds are required to carry out these exercises. However, the value far outweighs the cost. Your organization has gone to great lengths to build an effective, well-designed business continuity plan. This plan has taken sizable resources to develop. But if no one within the organization understands or knows how to apply the plan in the moment of need, what difference will it make? All that money and time on program development goes to waste.

A business continuity program can only be worthwhile if the key participants know their roles and are ready to act. A leader can instill this thorough knowledge and readiness through exercises.

How often should companies carry out business continuity exercises?

While there is no magic number, companies should conduct exercises routinely so that response and actions become second nature in an emergency. Participants should instinctively execute the duties of their role. Cultivating this instinct takes time and repetition, so annual practice is recommended at minimum.

Additionally, exercises should occur whenever there are substantial organizational or procedural changes that require the revision of business continuity plans.

Types of business continuity exercises

The type of business continuity exercises your company conducts will depend on several factors. Different industries and organization sizes have unique goals that may inform what format will suit them best. Additionally, some exercises are more complex and require a higher level of commitment to carry out.

If your team is new to business continuity planning, start by keeping it simple. As participants become more familiar with the structure and get to know the details of their roles within the plan, you can progress to more advanced exercises.

Here are some common exercise types that can help your organization prepare. Set aside realistic blocks of time to complete an exercise. They typically will take between two and five hours.

Seminar exercise
This basic style of exercise is the ‘plan walkthrough’ or ‘desk check’. All the participants split into groups based on their various roles and obligations within the plan. People get tasked with discussing and ‘walking through’ all aspects of a business continuity plan.

The simplest form of exercise involves key individuals discussing the ins and outs of a plan to see what will work and to discover gaps. It is a straightforward opportunity to analyze the current plan and involves minimal investment and resources. It is a drill to carry out before plan maintenance and adjustment.

Tabletop exercise
The tabletop exercise is suitable for when participants are ready to try their hand at an in-the-moment scenario, with a facilitator to guide the group through an emergency event. Each person gets a specific role, and they must respond according to the given scenario using the business continuity plan as a guide.

During tabletop exercises, the facilitator adds new information into the scene as it unfolds and  participants must respond.

This exercise is the most popular type and is excellent for beginner to intermediate groups.

Think of a fire drill. This is an exercise run for one particular purpose – to check and ensure the effectiveness of the response in the event of a fire emergency.

Drills are a type of business continuity exercise involving supervised, highly planned actions, typically focused on a single and specific operation, practice, or function. They are an opportunity to rehearse necessary steps and analyze efficiency as you would in a fire drill.

In a simulation, a group of participants acts as the decision-making body in response to events happening elsewhere. The participants could be in a control center or on an executive management team and must make decisions to remedy a situation unfolding far away.

This exercise style gives the participants an incredibly realistic chance to problem-solve and apply the necessary steps of the business continuity plan without having to act out the incident itself.

Live play
During a live play exercise, a scenario plays out as fully as possible. Organizers will need to consider safety precautions when planning the exercise but should try to make it as close to a real-life incident as possible.

Live play exercises take a large amount of time and resources to facilitate. Still, they are the best opportunity to practice for a genuine crisis and fully apply steps of your business continuity plan.

Running a successful business continuity exercise

Do not skimp on the planning stage. Your organization will need to decide on the necessary participants to include, what type of exercise to try, and agree on the goals of the exercise for it to run smoothly. You’ll also need to settle on the criteria of success and failure before beginning.

Facilitation can make or break an exercise. A skilled facilitator should be able to guide the scenario in a way that is supportive and believable, providing enough information and taking the activity seriously enough that it can be effective.

After an exercise, it is crucial to review to understand where participants succeeded and failed. This stage allows you to identify problem areas that need more work and sheds light on gaps in your plan that need revising.

A successful business continuity exercise takes planning and forethought but can be more engaging and successful with these few tips:

Choose a relevant scenario
A scenario should be relevant to your specific organization’s risks for participants to apply a continuity plan effectively. If a scenario is too far-reaching, it will be hard to engage with and less helpful in examining where you need to adjust.

Make it engaging
Once you have a realistic scenario, use tools at your disposal to bring the exercise to life for participants. Get creative here! You can use photos or videos, newspaper headlines, or snippets of news footage to capture participants’ attention. The more they feel invested in the exercise, the better the outcome will be.

Debrief immediately
Even if you’ve scheduled a formal review for a later time or date, it is essential that the participants take a few moments following an exercise to debrief and check in about their experiences.
What did you learn? What went well and what can be improved? Are there any new threats that require adjustments in the plan?

Taking stock of the main takeaways immediately can help synthesize learning during a formal review later.

What are the outcomes of a successful business continuity exercise?

Business continuity exercises, when done successfully, should improve participant and organizational knowledge of plans and how to implement them. They show what is working in your plan and where changes are necessary.

Businesses evolve with time, and the priorities of your continuity plan should adapt accordingly. Exercises provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate present needs and implement new strategies. When done regularly, they should prepare your organization enough to limit the disruption to regular operations in an emergency.

Just like unexercised continuity plans, not applying the lessons from exercises is a waste of resources and does little to no good. Create meaningful and realistic action items for improvement from your exercise findings and design a system to track the development and implementation of new procedures. 

The author

Julie Miranto is Product Marketing Manager at Riskonnect.

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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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