Outages, natural disasters and other disruptions out of a business's control can shut down operations with little-to-no warning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a proof point for organizations about the importance of planning ahead. The most successful organizations during COVID-19 disruption balanced urgent needs while planning strategically for the future, according to Kyle McPhee, director of preparedness programs at Hagerty Consulting, speaking Wednesday at Laserfiche Empower 2021.
Storms and cold weather in Texas left communities without electricity and power for several days this month. But not every company can afford the back-up systems to stay up and running, especially with employees scattered in the remote work environment.
What happened in Texas was a single point of failure that many businesses could not mitigate. With a business continuity plan, businesses can at least find a work around.
"It's very, very difficult to find the balance between how much protection is appropriate and useful against how much does it cost," Jeff Cherrington, VP of systems at ASG Technologies, said in an interview with CIO Dive last week. "It is always going to be a balancing act."
A culture of preparedness makes for a well-run organization, according to McPhee. Continuity is defined as how adaptable an organization is and how it's able to prioritize services during disruption, said McPhee.
"How quickly the company can restore revenue generating services to stabilize operations will determine whether they survive," said McPhee. "The next chapter of business in America needs to be one which prioritizes continuity as a core capability."
McPhee recommended early success planning. Layoffs, furloughs and catastrophes can leave vital roles suddenly unfilled. A prepared successor can make it easier for the business to bounce back from the loss by sustaining leadership.
Many businesses, especially essential ones, don't have the option to pause operations when disaster strikes. Because so many aspects of modern business rely on technology, CIOs and members of IT leadership become responsible for aspects of continuity planning, such as remote work and digital services.
IT's role in business continuity
Disruptions like the natural disaster in Texas are geographically specific, and IT plans can help businesses build workarounds.
Businesses rely heavily on their technical operations, and "it's important for the CIO to be involved because the CIO will own responsibility for many of the mechanics of recovery," said Cherrington.
"The chief information officers for those industries that are deemed critical to the safety and the orderly function of the country have to deal with an external audit that ensures that they've got continuity plans that are geographically diverse," Cherrington said.
A fully staffed office in another location isn't feasible for every business. The resources it takes to maintain the back-up location may not be worth it for a once-in-a-century outage.
To manage the smaller disruptions, the IT department can work with the vendors supporting their infrastructure. Continuity plans should look beyond what the company has direct control over and CIOs should ensure they're getting appropriate disclosure and transparency from vendors, according to Cherrington.
An Amazon Web Services outage last fall left several businesses unable to operate. An addition to capacity took down AWS US-EAST-1 region and several companies in the cloud, such as Roomba, heard from customers unable to access their services. It was a vendor-specific single point of failure which continuity plans can help businesses avoid.
"What we've seen now nearly a year into COVID-19 activities is that there's fatigue," McPhee said. "Organizations who maybe were successful at one point are now relying increasingly on third party providers or other means of support to make sure that they sustain operations."
To avoid the fatigue, McPhee recommends building continuity into the culture rather than just into a business plan.
"We're trying to build an implementation mindset," McPhee said. "Rather than large lengthy plans, a quick reference or playbook building that culture of preparedness and validating those capabilities is a critical component to building a continuity-based culture within your organization."
When Texas thaws out and the COVID-19 pandemic eventually fades, businesses won't be in the clear. More natural disaster and unforeseeable circumstances will come, putting pressure on IT departments to start planning now.
"Consequently, we do need to spend more time taking a hard look at our plans, and we need to challenge assumptions that we may bring with us from prior periods," Cherrington said. "It's always best to plan for the worst and hope for the best."