Preparing Businesses for a Pandemic

As news of the spread of the avian flu grows, businesses must factor in the possibility of a pandemic into their continuity planning.

A global virus affecting more than a quarter of the worlds population is an unpalatable, but increasingly likely prospect. The impact on human life could be catastrophic, but the potential economic impact to organizations across the world also cannot be ignored. Consider the following:

  • A report of the U.S. National Intelligence Councils 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy.
  • The London Chamber of Commerce found that one in five businesses would be unable to survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu.
  • The Asian Development Bank said in a report that it is only a matter of time before there is a major flu pandemic.

No one knows when or indeed if avian flu will transmute into a form that can be passed from human to human. But is there any justification for businesses to ignore these warnings?

For companies, anxiety levels should be rising fast. Companies would most likely face severe restrictions on international and possibly local travel, significant disruption to their supply chains as increased inspections disrupt logistics, and a potential general slowdown in business. Due to the number of uncertainties with avian flu, companies can plan only for what might happen. However, avian flu needs to be viewed as only one of a number of threats that companies face from a variety of unpredictable and possibly catastrophic events.

Given some of the terrible and disruptive events of the past few years, it might be safe to assume that businesses have learned lessons and implemented measures to ensure that they can carry on normally in the event of a worst-case scenario. Such confidence, unfortunately, may be misplaced.

Preparing for the Worst

Business continuity and crisis management are two sides of the same coin. While companies may have previously viewed these as discrete projects or activities that could take place alongside business as usual, more progressive businesses now ensure that business continuity considerations are embedded in general operations. What a company does, its processes and activities, must be considered in terms of how it would continue should a significant proportion of its workforce become incapacitated.

According to Gartner, companies need to consider that avian flu could be more contagious and virulent than SARS. In many ways, the SARS pandemic of 2003 prompted governments and businesses to take a proactive approach to addressing avian influenza, and many different agencies have outlined recommendations. Often, this includes remote working of one form or another. Though remote working is part of the solution, it fails to address the realities of a likely pandemic. If people are too sick to work, they will still be too sick to work at home. In addition, school closures will force many employees to remain at home to look after children, and overwhelmed health systems will mean that many people diagnosed with the infection will have to be cared for at home, again limiting otherwise-healthy employees ability to work.

In the event of a pandemic, remote working will allow segregation of the workforce. People will wish to avoid areas of mass congregationsuch as an officeas well as situations like air travel where large groups inhabit confined spaces for long periods of time. So in addition to remote working, organizations should also consider identifying skeleton teams of key staff who would be the only ones to come to work in the event of a pandemic. Primary and backup teams for key activities should be identified and organized on a split-shift, split-site basis to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Implementing a change freeze on all systems development will allow IT development staff to be redeployed into support positions if required.

Additionally, measures can be taken within a companys facilities, such as careful monitoring and maintenance of air conditioning; additional antiseptic cleaning of key at-risk office facilities (e.g., telephones in a call center, consoles and desks in a data center operations bridge, etc.). Even measures such as closing the sites catering facilities and providing pre-packaged food would likely be considered.

Communication

It is essential that companies make employees aware of a pandemic threat, and keep them up to date on developments and procedures to be followed. The uncertainty and threat of disease can seriously impact employee productivity, even if it affects only a small number of people. Some companies have started to stockpile antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and N95 facemasks to further address employee concerns.

In addition to communicating with employees, companies must keep investors and other stakeholders informed about their preparations and measures to be taken. This should form part of a cohesive and detailed communications plan, rather than be offered on a reactive basis. In particular, in light of the direct threat to people that avian flu presents, companies need to explain how they will maintain operations with a significantly reduced workforce.

Embedding Continuity

The most effective way to maintain operations is to optimize the use of existing resourcesparticularly in the case of global companies, where scale and spread of operations can provide some protection. This includes making sure that methodology and approaches are consistent wherever the business operates, so that similar skill sets can be employed around the globe to service different clients. Work can be transferred from one location to another while maintaining consistent standards and results. In other words, clients should not notice any degradation in the service received. This approach is not just good business practice, but goes to the heart of a sustainable approach to business continuity. In this case, the business continuity strategy becomes part of the business-as-usual operating strategy.

Many businessesparticularly in the financial sectorhave taken steps to ensure that an embedded approach to business continuity has become an inextricable element of their operations. Employing replicable methodologies and processes in many different jurisdictions is not the same as simply transferring work from one location to another as needed. This requires detailed planning to ensure that skill sets and capacities are matched, and that the impact of additional work flowing from one center to another does not critically impede the ability of resources in a new location to carry out their own work. An effective business impact analysis exercise can help achieve this balance by identifying the critical activities in each location that must be protected. Technology infrastructures also need to be designed to support this transfer approach and allow work to flow from one location to another as seamlessly as possible.

Avoiding Common Problems

Creating pervasive organizational awareness is one of the best approaches to disaster prevention. Behaviors and attitudes must be established before a major event has the chance to cause disruption. A common mistake that many companies make is to invest in continuity on a one-off, project basis. This project orientation means that continuity is assigned to a particular team of managers, which conducts a review, makes recommendations and, maybe, implements plans and solutions. However, in this case, continuity fails to become part of the lifeblood of the organization and, as such, does not receive the attention and support it requires from senior management to ensure plans remain fit for purpose and up to date.

By assigning ongoing responsibility and budgets for maintaining and exercising business continuity plans, and ensuring an appropriate level of employee training and awareness, organizations can embed business continuity into their day-to-day operations. To address the emerging threat of an avian flu pandemic, organizations must first assess the ability of existing plans to cope with a significant disruption to the workforce. Once any necessary updates have been made, an individual (usually the business continuity coordinator) should be assigned to track developments with all emerging threats, and to determine any further plan updates that may be required.

A further mistake can arise from a lack of coordination in the ongoing activities that support business continuity. It is revealing to ask companies what they spend on business continuity. Often, the response will bein the absence of a specific projectlittle or nothing at all. However, data backup and storage, for example, are daily activities, and most businesses maintain a redundant network. These are all business continuity-related activities, but are not often thought about in that way. To change this, senior management needs to move the issue of business continuity on to their permanent agenda. They must ensure that they can achieve an integrated view of all the activities and processes taking place within the business that relate to and support business-as-usual operations in the face of unexpected and adverse events.

Once this vision is achieved, a communications plan needs to be enacted that can keep various stakeholders informed of the measures taken, as well as measures proposed. It is crucial that investors feel their investment is protected and that all necessary activities are in handwith the full and focused attention of senior managementto manage and mitigate the risk created by a global pandemic. Otherwise, the business impact of failing to prepare, plan and communicate effectively could be a disaster.


Martin Byrne is the Accenture business continuity practice lead in Europe, while Robert Dyson has the same role in the Americas. They can be reached at martin.byrne@accenture.com and robert.w.dyson@accenture.com, respectively.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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