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Disasters strike, but are you prepared for them?

Lee Chadwick
Professional pessimism is the key to thorough disaster recovery planning, but are UK organisations taking business continuity seriously enough?

Most of us behave like ostriches when it comes to facing up to difficult or alarming market circumstances.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, UK businesses are learning from their US counterparts and are considering what improvements they could make to minimise the impact of a similar disaster on their businesses. Or at least you would hope so. But what about the events that are even more likely and that have actually happened?

Cast your mind back to the Californian power shortages and the Melissa virus, and it is worth questioning whether you are taking business continuity seriously enough.

It may seem harsh to learn from the misfortune of others, but consider this on another level, and you will see the relevance. After all, you would not put the entire Cabinet on the same plane.

Business continuity has been on the agenda for quite a few years, but how many companies, small, medium or large, really do have a contingency plan for all, yes all, eventualities?

What assets do you have which need to be operational to conduct business? Is it your staff, technology, the office, your customers? You have put a lot of investment into your staff and your technology, and without them, there would be no need for offices, meetings, proposals or customer retention strategies.

If you asked any chief information officer or chief technology officer when the last review of business continuity was carried out, I bet the responses would range from "not my responsibility" and "don't know" to "Y2K". And even if they had completed a review, how many have actually carried out the rigorous testing, maintenance, upgrades and implementations that were deemed necessary? Practically none, I imagine.

At best, I reckon that scenario documents would be created, distributed but feebly enforced and never referred to again. Until the aftermath - if they could be found by then. So, how are you able to remain operational in any eventuality - whether it be from a hired office or someone's garage?

Employing a professional pessimist is a good start. You need someone who can always see a worst case scenario and think rationally about how to manage it.

We all know that a good workman never blames his tools and, in this day and age, we rely on technology. Technology that, in turn, relies upon uninterruptible power supplies and replacement back-up facilities. If your business had to relocate tomorrow, could it? And what are the vital components that would ensure it could?
Answer these questions and you will know if you would cope.

Do you encourage mobile working? What about hosting and co-location? Do you know where all your staff are on a daily basis? Do you know what hardware you've got? Would your staff know where to turn if they had to start from scratch one morning? Chances are, the first call they would make would be to the IT help desk.

Moving forward
The IT department does not just react to queries about smart quotes in Word. It proactively set up networks and PCs to allow you to work remotely or access files and databases to do your job. In this respect, it is the heart of the business, pumping information around an organisation, allowing departments to work independently of each other, as well as interact, enabling the business to continue moving forward.

But to do this, a company needs hardware as well as software: telephones, CPUs, photocopiers, servers and printers. So how do you know what you've got until you lose it? And even then, would you know what you've lost?

Asset management is probably the most neglected activity within a company. If you had to make an insurance claim, would you know the state of all your assets? For most businesses knowing how many monitors it has is even more difficult. It is an arduous task to carry out a full inventory without the right tools.

Every company has a hardware graveyard that it should be monitoring closely in case emergency replacement equipment or evidence for an insurance claim is needed. This will nearly always fall to the IT or purchasing department - so why not use the helpdesk to monitor this, keep records and provide analysis on technology assets?

Now, that is all well and good, but what about the staff who use that equipment to generate revenue? Having 150 IT analysts - with their breadth and depth of knowledge for maintaining and supporting the business - in a single office is like putting all your eggs in one basket. Everyone knows they should not do it, but they still do.

After cell phones, the Internet and e-mail, mobile working is perhaps the next big trend for business. At present, one of the most useful, yet least utilised, assets is the personal digital assistant (PDA) - it is more of a status symbol than a must-have piece of equipment.

In a recent ICM survey, 52% of IT managers said that PDAs were a useful business tool. Maybe it is time to make full use of the PDAs and laptops you invested in and encourage more mobile working. What better way to demonstrate return on investment? And the pluses don't end there; not only are flexible working practices good for staff morale and efficiency, they are a safer way to spread out staff skill sets.

Disseminating your technology and staff is not a question of choice, but more one of necessity. But, a word of caution - if you are going to encourage it, you have to make sure your staff can use technology competently and invest in IT training.

IT support would have enough on their hands if the office wasflooded, without someone from sales logging a call asking how to access a Powerpoint presentation or a given server, whilst trying heroically to push ahead with that all-important pitch.

Let us hope that a power cut or a server crash is the most we will ever have to deal with, but do not underestimate the surreal events that can take place and jeopardise the business. It is worth spending a little time and money to save a lot more in the long run.

Lee Chadwick, sales and marketing director at Touchpaper

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