When disaster strikes...

Bird flu. Peak oil. Terrorism. Hurricanes... and BCM of course

The past few years have been dominated by these and a thousand other apocalyptic headlines. And businesses, from the smallest SME to the largest multinational, are taking notice. After all, there is something about the feeling of impending catastrophe that tends to concentrate the mind.

With questions of business continuity shooting up the agenda, the disaster planners are in high demand.

Who, what and how?

Catastrophe, of course, is nothing new. Continuity planning has been around for a long time, and its basic methodology is well-established. "It all comes down to people, then processes, then technology," said Marcus Alldrick, business recovery specialist at KPMG. Using a tried-and-tested tool known as business impact analysis, firms can work out which people are absolutely key to keeping everything running, what they need to do - and the tools they need to do it.

Then, once plans are in place, you test them. Whether it's fire, flu or - God forbid - a bomb, you can work out how the principles can be applied "You can't predict what scenario you'll face," Mr Alldrick says. "But you can rehearse for the unexpected." The trick, he says, is to set challenges to managers. What do you do if communications break down? If all vehicles are off the road? If half your staff disappear to take care of sick relatives? "Whether it's fire, flu or - God forbid - a bomb, you can work out how the principles can be applied," Mr Alldrick says.

Exclusion zones

The threat currently creating the headlines is an interesting example. To date, bird flu has produced just one confirmed avian fatality in the UK - and the dead swan in question may well have been washed up on shore having perished elsewhere.

Still, its arrival has triggered fears that should bird flu make the jump to human transmission, widespread exclusion zones could be the result. Add in the widespread absenteeism as employees stay home, either sick themselves or looking after sick relatives, and it's not hard to see how businesses in today's just-in-time environment could be facing oblivion.

Someone else's problem?

The dominant trends in management reinforce the potential threat - not only from "creeping crises" such as bird flu, which at least can be seen coming far in advance, but from more unpredictable ones such as terrorist attacks or extreme weather.

For years, managers have been told to focus on what they do best and - if possible - outsource everything else. "You have to look at the small print (of outsourcing deals) very, very carefully" That, says the chief of Accenture's European business continuity practice, Martin Byrne, may be a mixed blessing. "Outsourcing and offshoring can spread the risk," he says. "But it also extends the zone of where things can go wrong."

Ripple effect

When disaster strikes, there can all too easily be a ripple effect, as your suppliers find themselves caught short - and those relying on you then risk failing in turn.

What happens if the firm who manages your payroll is caught in a natural disaster? Or - as happened to UK internet firm Be - civil unrest closes down the Indian company handling your customer service phone calls? Or your main supplier's depot is in a bird flu exclusion zone?

"You have to look at the small print very, very carefully," Mr Byrne says. "And watch your relationships with your suppliers very, very closely." It can be even more basic than that. If your staff are stuck in the office rather than excluded from it, as happened during the London bombings of 2005, you may need to feed them, or even put them up for the night. Certainly, says KPMG's Marcus Alldrick, you might rely on the pizza shop down the road. But then again, so could every other business within 200 metres - in which case the pizzas are going to run out pretty quickly.

Sharing the risk

Still, the close-knit nature of modern business, and its reliance on access to huge volumes of information, is not all bad news. Some of the really critical data, for instance, is easy to back up, as long as you plan for it with one of the multitude of specialist firms in the field. "We'll take a certain amount of the risk," says Keith Tilley, UK managing director of SunGard. "As a business decision, we would turn away any potential clients (whose premises are) within a certain distance of yours." That way, should the worst happen on a localised basis your data will not fall victim to a stampede for the data firm's services.

What, though, if the data firm itself falls victim? "We spread the risk ourselves by having distributed centres, with multiple backups, and all identical on the inside," Mr Tilley says. That way, staff who can't get into one building can walk into another and just get on with their jobs.

Pulling together

This kind of exclusivity deal applies not only to data, but to all kinds of other outsourcing services too, KPMG's Marcus Alldrick says. Forget them, and you could find yourself pushed down the queue in favour of someone with a more tightly-written contract - whatever your normally-agreed level of service.

That said, however, some circumstances - particularly the most extreme occurrences, such as the London bombings - inspire performances which go far above and beyond the call of duty. "When something really bad happens," says Mr Alldrick, "you find that your suppliers kick in. "Everyone tends to pull together." Prepare for the worst, in other words. But don't be afraid to hope for the best.


If you would like to know more about how your organisation can get involved and benefit from working with the Continuity Forum, please email us HERE! or call on + 44 (0) 208 993 1599.