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A business plan for disaster

As a result of the three-day New York City transit strike in December, the millions of commuters who regularly travel into Manhattan or throughout the five boroughs had to find an alternate means of transportation or an alternate workplace. As is the case with most of my colleagues at Basex, I work at home regularly. Anyone at Basex can do so and there is no impact on operations. In fact, telework has become the norm, not the alternative.

Most companies can adjust to a situation such as a transit strike or snowstorm that keeps knowledge workers away from the office for a few days. But that's it--after a few days, things must and do return to normal. But what about scenarios where more people are unable to come to work for a longer period of time?

Eighty percent of large businesses worldwide have failed to prepare for the type of business continuity emergency steps that a global pandemic influenza might require. In such circumstances, absenteeism could rise to 25 percent above normal rates and could continue for months. While the percentage for large companies is an incredible 80 percent, I am quite certain that for all businesses it is closer to 90 percent. The threat of a pandemic influenza is simply not on the radar screens of most managers. But it should be.

The truth is that companies need to start assessing their preparedness right now. SARS wiped out thousands of Asian businesses, infected more than 8,000 people in 30 countries on five continents and killed 813 people. The threat of SARS triggered headlines and captured mind share, but its consequences pale in comparison to what a pandemic might bring about.

A global pandemic would cause even greater panic among individual workers and corporate managers, disruptions in the supply chain and significant economic upheaval. And it is not a remote possibility. In the 20th century, pandemics have occurred in 1918, 1957 and 1968. And a pandemic influenza is not the only threat. The past year has witnessed tsunamis, hurricanes and massive flooding.

The SARS scare throughout much of the world should have reinforced the fact that companies need to prepare for unusual work environments, but it didn't. World events may keep workers at home, but businesses need to take steps to continue operations ... or risk the consequences. Basex refers to this type of situation as an emergency collaborative response: A company's collaborative business environments--tools that represent the nexus of knowledge sharing, collaboration and the business itself--are used to ensure business continuity.

In the event of a significant incident that might require an emergency collaborative response, companies need to be able to comply with local governmental recommendations such as requesting that employees stay home. This might mean that no one is in the office to turn the lights on (or off).

One company I spoke with about their preparations for an emergency collaborative response is IBM. "At IBM, we already have an online environment that manages almost every aspect of an IBMer's work, regardless of physical venue," says Mike Wing, VP of strategic communications at IBM.

But few companies are as far along in their preparedness as IBM (and Basex, I might add). In fact, most corporate managers have not begun to even contemplate what scenarios would play out in the event of a pandemic influenza—with only about 70 percent of their normal work force. Or travel might even be restricted to an affected geographic area; employees working near an affected area might require evacuation with short or no notice. Clearly, most companies' plans do not anticipate the loss of access to an entire region.

One response to a pandemic is to limit the spread of the disease. That means planning now for creating the optimal work environment in an employee's home, complete with the requisite IT infrastructure. As simple as that might sound on an individual basis, it is far from simple when thousands or tens of thousands of employees are going to find themselves office-less in the traditional sense of "office."

To ensure business continuity, managers must recognize the importance of:

  • having information redundantly and easily available from multiple sources,
  • cross-training employees,
  • finding backups for suppliers and presently outsourced work functions, and 
  • documenting what employees do and know.

Social and cultural changes within the organization must be recognized as well.

In the last two decades, the worker population has shifted from one in which industrial workers comprised a majority of the work force to one in which knowledge workers comprise a plurality of the work force. Few companies have prepared adequately for their move into the knowledge economy; even fewer have designed work environments that allow knowledge workers to focus on their work without distraction.

The collaborative business environment (CBE) model describes a workplace that supersedes the traditional desktop metaphor and connects knowledge sharing, collaboration, people and the organization itself, allowing knowledge workers to focus on knowledge work. A CBE model will support a set of processes and tools that provide the infrastructure for enterprisewide communication and knowledge sharing to facilitate efficient collaboration and productivity.

An emergency situation, such as a pandemic, is not, however, the time to begin planning to deploy a CBE. Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, deputy commissioner of disease control at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene , recently commented to me in a discussion that "the middle of the pandemic is not the time to start making arrangements."

A Basex report on this topic, "Strengthening Corporate Pandemic Preparedness and Response," is available at no charge at basex.com/pandemic. It outlines the issues companies face and provides clear, concise information that companies can use to begin formulating their own contingency plans.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and chief analyst at Basex, e-mail jspira@basex.com

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