Natural disasters. City-wide power outages. Office-closing accidents. These big, unpredictable disruptions are what most leadership teams imagine when designing business continuity plans. And while these unexpected events can radically impact our everyday operations, today’s disruptions to business continuity aren’t always what we expect. Consider how many organizations are scrambling to prepare for the global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. This virus is a major threat to business continuity, but it will impact our work differently than what most business continuity plans are prepared to handle.
This is not a post about COVID-19, but it is about the larger lesson we need to learn from this pandemic—your continuity plan needs to be flexible enough to handle the new normal of business disruptions. These new threats to business continuity are global rather than regional, slow rather than sudden, and primarily human-centered rather than exclusively environmental or technological.
When we look at sales brochures for disaster mitigation consultants, they typically focus on regional disruptions like extreme weather events. This makes sense, as no one wants to imagine a hurricane or tornado wreaking havoc on their offices and the surrounding city. So, we plan to handle these potential disasters by backing up files in multiple data center locations and having contingency plans to meet our customer commitments. These plans work for regional issues because we can realign our resources and strategy to other locations until our local grid and offices are back online.
So, what happens when the threat to business continuity is global, not regional? For companies with global footprints, expenditures from international supply chains can account for up to 90% of business costs. Global supply chain issues like an oil shortage or blockage in a major shipping waterway can cripple companies that aren’t prepared. To plan for global threats to your business continuity, have a strategy to handle international shortages in essential materials or slowdowns in customer demand.
Sudden disasters like your headquarters burning down can be awful for your business. However, while these sudden disasters happen without warning, they also tend to end quickly—a building that catches fire does not usually remain on fire for days. This allows you to act decisively on your recovery plan as soon as the sudden disruption is resolved.
However, some of the biggest disruptions to business continuity build slowly and can last indefinitely. Consider political events like the Arab Spring, which began in December 2010 with one act of protest in the small country of Tunisia and eventually led to protests that toppled governments across the Middle East over the next year. In the meantime, supply chains and international businesses in the area were so disrupted that economic expansion in the area was still slow five years afterward. The lesson here is to pay attention to slow moving events that have the potential to become major disruptions to your business. You want a continuity plan that acknowledges growing uncertainty and gives you flexibility to act before a disruption becomes a disaster.
As you design your disaster recovery and business continuity strategy, it’s easy to focus on the technological impact of adverse events. There are servers to back up, equipment to protect, and networks to keep online when disasters strike. Replacing or repairing this technology is costly and time-consuming, and any loss in service will certainly impact your operations.
However, the latest threats to business continuity are threats to your employees, not your technology. Today’s COVID-19 pandemic is not attacking your data center or your extended network—it’s attacking your employees as they commute to and collaborate at work. This demands you have a business continuity plan that empowers employees to collaborate and do their best work remotely for as long as it takes to resolve the situation. For example, Amazon has asked employees at its Seattle headquarters to work from home for the next several weeks, and other big tech firms have restricted travel for the indefinite future. The lesson here is not to panic, but to prioritize equipping employees with the tools and technology they need to have the best possible work experience in the middle of a tough situation.
One thing about our unknown future is certain—your company is going to face challenges to your business continuity program. As you think about your approach, be sure to consider the new normal of business continuity management by planning for threats and disruptions that are global, ongoing, and people-centered. This can empower your employees to not only stay productive during a crisis, but also to work together better and make your organization stronger.
For recommendations and best practices to help evolve and elevate business continuity strategy in your organization, download Gartner’s 2020 Strategic Road Map for Business Continuity Management.
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