Ah, the late summer months. We wait all year for what they bring: Cookouts, beach outings, holidays…
I don’t mean to make light of the tragedies that have beset so many this year. My good thoughts go out to all. The point for business, however, is that the same weather conditions that make late summer so inviting for outdoor living are also the catalysts for natural disasters that can completely derail a company’s operations. And yet, many businesses have no continuity of operations plans to stay running when nature decides to put a stop to travel.
We all remember the 2010 eruptions of Iceland’s unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which disrupted air travel from April through June before finally subsiding in October. During that time, air travel between Europe and the US was hamstrung, with London’s Heathrow Airport all but shut down for a week straight. This year’s equivalent is the Bardarbunga volcano. In late August, Iceland's Meteorological Office finally lowered the aviation threat level from red (the worst) to orange (merely frighteningly risky).
At around the same time in August, a 6.0 earthquake struck Napa, CA, igniting fires that damaged homes and creating almost impassable traffic conditions in the worst disaster to hit the area since the late 1980s.
And these random events are really just the cappers to more predictable natural disasters that hit large parts of the US every year at this time. Hurricane season in the Atlantic goes from June to November. (Again at the end of August this year, Tropical Storm Cristobal was upgraded to hurricane status, threatening businesses and homes from the Bahamas to the Southern US). In the West, where earthquakes and hurricanes are not as pressing a concern, nature offers up wildfires instead. The majority of Texas experiences a fire season that stretches from mid-July to mid-September.
Four years ago, the Iceland volcano caught the entire world by surprise, and businesses bore the brunt of the flight restrictions. But as the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Disasters threaten business every year, like clockwork, and yet we don’t seem to learn from these experiences.
There’s simply no excuse not to have some plan in place for business continuity when nature turns ugly.
Larger companies may have some type of risk assessment or continuity of operations plan in place. Small and mid-sized companies are not typically so forward thinking. When things turn ugly, sales, supply chain communications and customer service can all come to a grinding halt.
How do you make sure that collaboration and information sharing can happen between geographically disparate locations, even when headquarters locations are no longer accessible?
If you just don’t know where to start in creating a plan, take a page from the federal government – which for once has actually been a bit ahead of the game. A federal continuity of operations framework has been around since 2007, when National Security Presidential Directive 51 created a National Continuity Policy for the Federal Government.
Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides an outline of the requirements for COOP planning in the federal government. The FEMA overview includes items such as records management, continuity communications and “devolution of control and direction” – that is, moving responsibility and authority for mission critical functions to other personnel as needed.
In the private sector, critical business functions consider in continuity of operations planning range from emergency payroll and access to accounting systems to identifying a secondary location from which operations can run. Beyond that, you need reliable communications and information sharing when people themselves are scattered.
Today’s technology offers video communications that is almost as good as being there in person. Teams can access important work documents for collaboration, and even monitor the safety of employees in remote locations. Information can be shared between locations. Conferences can be recorded and reviewed later when it’s convenient for the people hardest hit by the disaster.
Remember, though, that dedicated video conferencing with proprietary technology is a fair-weather friend. When disaster strikes you don’t want your video technology stuck in a dark conference room in an empty building. You need a solution where laptop, desktop, tablet and smartphone video conferencing works together to keep your key employees connected. Cloud-based video technology is a good solution here, because it doesn’t require complicated on-premises infrastructure, and it allows you to run business as usual.
Please take special care in the heavy weather conditions of the late summer months. And create a continuity of operations plan for when disasters strike, to so when Mother Nature wreaks havoc, your business won’t suffer.
This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine September 2014