Archive for April, 2009

Flu Pandemic or Not – Time for your Business Continuity and Sustainability Plan!

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When the WHO global alert level for swine flu hit phase 5 (imminent) in April ’09, some well-prepared business leaders were moving swiftly to enact existing plans to ensure they could continue to do business even if their employees and customers faced restrictions on travel (including commuting) and gathering in-person. Thankfully, a  full-blown pandemic did not materialize in the weeks after, but it still begs the question: Do you have a business continuity strategy?

A flu pandemic is only one of the ways your sales, production and distribution activities could be disrupted. Increasingly, weather extremes (with accompanying fires, floods, ice and snow) and unreliable power grids are making themselves felt. Last September, almost no one in the Midwest was prepared for the fallout of Hurricane Ike, the third most destructive to make landfall in the United States. In Ohio, alone, 1.8 million customers were without power – some for more than a week. In his excellent book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman explores, among other things, the increase in severe or unusual environmental activity we are living with. From that point of view, Global Warming is more aptly described as Global Weirding, and leaders should take heed that their past experience with weather trends may no longer prepare their business for what lies ahead.

Interestingly, when teams explore strategies around new models of sustainability for a business, they can sound much like the business continuity group planning down the hall. Options for conservation, telecommuting, distributed generation (generate power where it is needed, thus reducing transmission losses), solar heating and passive cooling, and reuse of “waste” streams as “feed” streams for other processes – all can help an organization be more resilient to disruption in infrastructure.

Strategies for business continuity vary by industry. A manufacturer – especially with only one production location –  faces a far less portable business than a knowledge firm. The manufacturer’s continuity strategy might, for instance, revolve around prevention of damage (i.e. from wind, fire or flood), combined with plans for distributed power generating capacity, letting them survive for some time off the grid. That said, most companies have a more portable “white-collar” or knowledge function, and it is here we will focus for the rest of this article.

Just recently, we were delighted (a bit amazed, really) to encounter a small knowledge business with a truly effective continuity plan. In a nearby community, a fire broke out and destroyed a good portion of a city block of retail and mixed use buildings. Sadly, the local retailers were hit the hardest, with insurance coverage their only hope. But while most tenants were sifting through the rubble, this one firm was actually attending meetings and getting on with business, thanks to mirrored offsite infrastructure and home offices. We reached out to offer help and alternate operating space, and were amazed that they were inconvenienced, but not at all desperate. Such foresight and planning is all too rare.

Business leaders who haven’t recently reviewed the cost of offsite backup for their knowledge and communication functions will be pleasantly surprised. A client in the “knowledge work” business recently compared the price of a 20-person state-of-the-art virtual office with the cost of a conventional “bunch of servers in a closet at headquarters, with a geek to run them” setup. The virtual office design relied on hosted servers and VOIP phone service, meaning that headquarters had only Internet service (with backup service), and each user had a laptop and VOIP phone on their desk. Everything else, including the phone system, was somewhere else in a datacenter – a datacenter with the resources for a truly robust continuity plan. Should anything happen to HQ – extended power outage, fire, flood or plague – the workers simply route their extensions to cellphones, pop their laptops up at home, or on a wireless card, and keep on producing.

Startup and running costs per year, including utilities, A/C, space savings and rent reduction, and technical support for this small operation were calculated to be tens of thousands of dollars per year less than their existing costs. What opportunities exist for savings in an operation of your scale?

For leaders and executives who have not already arranged for their knowledge workforce to work remotely, we have an article on Remote Collaboration from a Home Office (also good for Road Warriors). We’ve freshly reviewed and updated it. Also, ask your IT department about accessing your work computer remotely and securely via programs and services such as Virtual Private Networking (VPN), Microsoft Terminal Services, Remote Desktop Connection, Citrix Services, LogMeIn or GoToMyPC. Mac users are not shut out, either. Often, a Mac can control a PC just fine. If you happen to have a Mac at work, Google: “access your Mac remotely” for plenty of options, or try LogMeIn for Mac. Standard access is free.

Business continuity planning, as important as it is when disaster strikes, is neglected when it is not aligned with the overall business strategy. The forces of disruption are on the rise, the cost to implement a business continuity plan is falling, and the synergy with sustainability efforts is growing. Review and revise (or create!) your plan to protect your customers, your employees, your community and your profits!

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