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As we begin the slow return to something resembling normal life over the next few months, there’s an opportunity to plan for the next disaster while this one is fresh in our minds.
The value of this perspective can’t be emphasized enough — one of the biggest challenges of making a disaster response or business continuity plan is to imagine in detail how business operations would be affected.
Currently, we don’t have to imagine.
There are many different types of disasters — weather events, cyber attacks, pandemics — but all good business continuity plans have certain things in common. The first is a high level of detail.
As you likely just experienced, business interruptions are very stressful and you don’t want to be making business-critical decisions under an extreme stress load. The more your plan can lay out clear actions for different eventualities, the better.
In fact, your plan should be so easy to understand that it can be executed by multiple people in your organization. As a thought experiment, take individuals who led your company in adapting to COVID-19 and imagine that they are unavailable. Can the rest of your team implement the plan without them?
One factor that is critical is communication. How will your team communicate in the event of a disaster? Your method of communication needs to be simple and verifiable. You don’t want the message to go out to start the execution of the business continuity plan, and only three out of the five people who need to see it receive the message.
Make a list of everything that is essential to your operations. Who are the key people and which processes rely on them? What technology do you need to function?
Once you have a complete list, prioritize it. What is the very first thing that should be addressed next time a business interruption occurs?
Be sure to include any partner organizations that would provide support during a disaster, but only those with whom you have a contract. If they’re going to be part of your plan, you have to be certain you can count on them. Also consider your legal obligations, both in terms of your business, but also compliance or other requirements.
You can’t expect to execute your plan effectively if you don’t practice. Live testing — in which key systems or sites are simulated to be down — is ideal. Tabletop testing, in which scenarios are talked through, works too.
Just as you’ll document what worked and what didn’t in your response to the current pandemic, note issues with your plan during practice sessions and adjust it accordingly. Every company has strategic planning sessions. Make business continuity planning sessions just as routine.
Few saw this pandemic coming. It may feel futile to try to plan for the next disaster without knowing what it will be, but companies that had a business continuity plan of some kind heading into 2020 were in a much stronger position than those that didn’t.
Andrew Tyler is a senior consulting engineer at Glastonbury IT consulting firm Kelser Corp.
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