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IT strategy: All fall down – time to get business continuity planning houses in order

Every major health scare is invariably accompanied by much
scaremongering. This doom-saying will almost certainly include a series of dire
warnings over the lamentable disarray that passes for business continuity
management or disaster recovery planning.

We are advised, in such circumstances, to be ‘Very Afraid’ as IT and business
planning will ­ for many companies ­ be totally disproportionate to the scale of
the threat.

Despite the fact there has been much crying wolf in the past, the sky has
consistently failed to fall in. So many are now arguing that we should take the
growing sense of panic surrounding ‘swine flu’ with a pinch of salt. That said,
every credible authority agrees we are overdue a global flu pandemic; it is not
a question of if, but when such an outbreak will take hold.

At the time of going to press, the spread of the A(H1N1) influenza strain of
swine flu that emerged in Mexico appears to be steady, but not devastating. It
could be this strain that spreads to become a global pandemic, but the fact that
cases are now being reported in the Far East should send shivers down our
spines. Some experts think a new strain will develop when the infection merges
with the better-known ‘avian flu’ that has been spreading in Asia for some time.
Perhaps it will create a new terror ­ ‘flying pig flu’.

But this is no laughing matter. When a pandemic occurs, businesses are going
to be hit.

Some are going to be hit very hard and some will fail. It is estimated that a
global flu pandemic could lead to between a third and a half of workers being
struck down.

Research outfit Gartner notes that, pandemic or no, swine flu is already
affecting companies. There are fears that global trade will be impacted as the
disease spreads and the European Union has issued travel warnings advising
would-be visitors to the US and Mexico to only venture forth for essential
trips.

Sensible steps, such as minimising unnecessary business travel ­ not only to
areas known to be infected ­ should be just the beginning of measures. Staff
should be able to circumvent all but the most essential face-to-face meetings
and, instead, communicate using technologies such as video conferencing or
teleconferencing. IT managers must ensure such systems are in place and can be
accessed by all staff to enable continuity of communications in the event of
such a crisis.

A scenario of this sort is likely to mean the number of home workers will
need to be dramatically increased to support employees who would normally be
office-based. Is the kit available for staff to take home? Have staff been
trained to use it properly? How do you cope with the increased IT support
overhead associated with remote working? Connectivity issues need to be
resolved. Security ­ always a major headache when it comes to remote working ­
should not be compromised in a headlong rush to expand access provision.

Information technology research group Butler says these employees will need
to be provided with virtual private networks to access central systems securely
­ assuming such central systems can be maintained. They will also need instant
messaging, remote support and collaborative workspaces. As such, it is also
important that IT departments can establish, optimise and support such virtual
infrastructures.

However, technology research company Quocirca points out that technology can
only do so much to safeguard companies in the event of an oncoming pandemic.
Home and remote working is all very well, but what if your staff are not well
enough to access the systems that are in place for them? Companies have
typically reduced single points of failure in their structures so that, if one
key member of staff is incapacitated, the impact on the business as a whole will
be minimised. But what if half the board is laid up in bed, unable to do
anything but pop a few more Tamiflu?

In these circumstances, hardware and software cannot help. It is the human
factor that needs to be addressed: what some techies refer to as ‘wetware’.
Procedures need to be put into place that eliminate not just single points of
failure caused by individuals going sick, but also, potentially, whole
departments going offline. Businesses need to ask hard questions about which
processes are absolutely, fundamentally core, which are nice to have, but
potentially expendable and which are non-core. Then technical and human resource
plans must be drawn up to focus what limited resources remain where they can do
most good.

In terms of SWOT analysis, the swine flu threat provides an opportunity for
senior IT and business managers to put their business contingency planning
houses in order. It is time to check the effectiveness of planning and boost
awareness. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to waste.

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