Communication immunisation for SMEs

Bert van der Zwan, vice-president of EMEA for WebEx, explains why SMEs need to give more thought to their business continuity plans.

Bert van der Zwan, vice-president of EMEA for WebEx, explains why SMEs need to give more thought to their business continuity plans and how existing technology can be leveraged to make such plans cost-effective and help maintain their competitive edge in any situation.

Whether it is a natural disaster or an epidemic, businesses can temporarily and often suddenly, lose effective communication with customers, making it important to have plans in place that ensure business continuity. Take, for instance, the outbreak of the Norovirus in the early weeks of this year - at its height one in eight people were off sick, costing the economy an estimated £40m a day. The recent problems at Heathrow's Terminal 5 are another example of an unexpected disruption, with some 430 flights cancelled in the first week alone. Such unavoidable occurrences can be catastrophic for SMES, with 80% of businesses affected by a major incident either never re-opening or closing within 18 months. Despite this, business continuity is an area often overlooked by SMEs, with Gartner estimating that only 35% have a comprehensive disaster plan in place.

SMEs need to recognise the importance of business continuity because the way business is conducted has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. The relatively leisurely pace at which interactions occurred when the most immediate mode of contact was the telephone is fast disappearing. E-mail, instant messaging and the ubiquity and portability of the internet means that our approach to, and means of, working has changed. We are also more mobile, and as business travel increases so does the risk of being held up by, for example, traffic or flight cancellations.

Alongside this, customer expectations have also changed. They now expect access to organisations as and when they need it, regardless of how mobile businesses are and, perhaps more importantly, whether it is an SME or large enterprise. This is in part because SMEs in the UK are more inclined to follow the same pragmatic approach to IT that larger enterprises adopted some time ago, and are competing on a more level playing field. However, this pervasiveness, and subsequent reliance on technology to punch above their weight and compete against larger organisations, puts them in a vulnerable position should this technology become unavailable.

Minor interruptions, where most business facilities are unaffected but employees still cannot get to work on time, occur for a number of reasons. For example, floods can prevent access to the office or a transport strike might occur. In such cases, there is considerable risk that it will bring your business to a near or complete standstill, and invariably cause a substantial loss in profit. A quarter of businesses can expect to lose a minimum of £10,000 an hour if business is disrupted and for those in the finance sector this figure can reach millions of pounds. Sympathy and loyalty does not last long with customers and in such a competitive market they will be quick to turn to one of your competitors if you cannot satisfy their needs.

Despite these risks, if you mention business continuity to an SME it often conjures up images of a very complex and expensive plan with no guarantee that it will ever be put to use. However, this need not be the case. Many parts of a business' infrastructure can be leveraged if disaster strikes, with the added benefit of being useful to a business when everything is running smoothly.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications are one such example of these technologies as it means maintenance can be taken care of remotely by the supplier or reseller. Also, it gives employees greater accessibility if they need to work outside the office. This is because the software requires only an internet connection so it can be used anywhere - from home, at work, or in any Wi-Fi hotspot - and is increasingly becoming available on wireless devices such as mobile phones and Blackberrys. As such, users can access the business applications they need whenever they need them, so if employees cannot get to the office they can be productive elsewhere.

Collaborative SaaS applications such as web conferencing develop this notion by allowing users to meet and work with remote colleagues online. This type of technology can play a critical role in keeping forcibly dispersed workforces operating effectively for extended periods. To ensure it is used to its full potential it is important SMEs deploy any such system well before a disaster takes place to ensure employees, and indeed suppliers and customers, are familiar with the technology. It is important, however, to choose a conferencing system that provides sufficiently broad functionality to support the needs of the business, from simple voice conferences to web meetings that allow document sharing, virtual training and large-scale seminars.

Voice-over-IP technology can also play a significant role in enabling businesses to stay up and running in the face of disruption however, you do need to ensure your system has a high availability capability. This means a more engineered, implemented and planned approach. VoIP differs from telephony phone services as desktop VoIP phones are powered by your organisation, not the phone company. So, if in your business continuity plan you have provided for uninterruptible power supply support for your network, you need to ensure that this support extends throughout all of the VoIP components. Nonetheless, it can enable employees to cost-effectively re-create their office on a laptop, including a softphone interface that can incorporate presence, so other co-workers' online status is detected, as well as contact information for customers, suppliers and others needed to stay in business.

Again, with all of these communications, it is important that they are used on a day-to-day basis so employees are familiar with them well before they are called upon if business is disrupted. This then has the added advantage of addressing the cost issue for SMEs as they become part of the business infrastructure. The benefits of such technologies are then realised even if the business continuity plan is never used as they can help support more flexible working practices so employees can be productive wherever they are.

SMEs ignore business continuity at their peril. They cannot afford to overlook the vast costs of business interruptions and any loss of communication with customers, however temporary, because it can have catastrophic effects. In the last five years alone global terrorism, major climatic events, and transport strikes have all demonstrated their potential for disrupting business continuity. It is very encouraging that SMEs are already savvy when it comes to technology and are well placed to compete against much larger organisations. This now needs to be extended to solutions and applications that can be used on a day-to-day basis and support a cost-effective business continuity plan to ensure they have the best chance of maintaining that edge in any situation.

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