Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Business continuity: how will your company cope?

I'm in Mexico City working on what could be (could have been?) a fun and challenging 3 month project, implementing business process management (BPM) and document management in a global insurance company. Now the city is faced with being the source of a potential pandemic of swine flu. This is giving me first hand experience of how companies handle business continuity planning (BCP) in different countries. And I'm reminded once again that, business continuity is not about having a bunch of backup tapes.

My earlier experiences with business continuity planning were working for a vendor of Imaging and Workflow in the UK, in the government and insurance sectors. Customers of any size believed that if they were going to implement such technologies to improve their business processes they would probably become dependent on them. They also seemed to buy the concept that if you were going to improve your business processes, you should take the opportunity to improve the security of your information and the resilience of your operations.

The whole concept of business continuity was reinforced to me with a very powerful punch one day when I was helping a large systems integrator to design a system for the UK government, to support around 6000 concurrent users. Not only were we discussing the value of near real-time backups to offsite locations, but added to that the logistics around providing a system to test business continuity. The testing would involve not just taking a server and unplugging it to test failover to a secondary system, but would also test how the plans for moving a set of essential users to a temporary location would operate, both technically and logistically.

Then the first of many amazing calls came in. The day was September 11th. We all know what happened next. Less obviously, the business continuity procedures of hundreds, if not thousands of companies were tested. There are many examples of those that worked and those that didn't. Some companies managed successfully to move their entire financial or trading operations overseas and absorb the increase in load for the remote resources with seemingly minimal effort. Other companies just vanished along with their information, their infrastructure and, extremely sadly, the knowledge in the heads of some of their key workers. Since those days, companies have learned their lessons, and some have unfortunately forgotten them.

I moved to the US in late 2003 to work in the same imaging and workflow business with the same profile of organizations. I was shocked at how little attention US companies and government paid to providing more than a bunch of backup tapes for business continuity. In the event of an office flooding, being struck by lightening, or something more catastrophic, these organizations would not only have to rebuild their complex servers from the ground up, they have to restore terabytes of information from tape, and procure PCs and temporary office space for their workers. Weeks of time, and in the case of the commercial organizations, hundreds of customers would be lost. In my opinion, US companies seemed unwilling to invest to mitigate risks such as these. Since some of those organizations are / were around the Gulf coast, I hope they are still around to tell the tale.

Things have changed at least from a remote infrastructure standpoint. Companies have the advantage that most of their professional workers, even here in Mexico City, own a PC and a broadband Internet connection. The infrastructure of temporary office space may be unnecessary. And I have watched many companies making the most of that today with the current flu situation, as they try to reduce the number of groups of people in close proximity. In the pair of office tower I work in, Torre de Esmeralda, an estimated 40% of people were working from home. The question is, if the minor tremor of yesterday had been more than 5.6, how many would have had adequate, ready to roll offsite servers and information available for those users, or others in a completely different city?

Business continuity planning, the technology of resilient business process management and document management, and the logistics to make it worth anything, is being brought back to the attention of companies worldwide.

A post from the Improving It blog

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mexico City - up front and personal

What an interesting time to be in Mexico City. Watching the inhabitants of this enormous city's response to what could turn out to be an incredibly nasty situation has been an education in the culture of the Mexican people. Watching how the government and companies are addressing the situation as well has also been interesting.

I've only been in Mexico for 7 days, which means that I had been here about 3 days when the news about the first cases started to be recognized as meaningful. Listening to the discussions about the issue in the office where I am working (a multinational insurance company) has been enlightening.

Day one of the news (at least the first day I was aware of it), people were joking around about about having the flu every time someone sneezed.

Day two, the company was distributing blue face-masks to everyone in the office, the doors were opened to ensure air circulation, and presumably the air-conditioning (if there really is any, as it always feels tropical) was turned down. People continued to joke about the flu, though the habitual greeting kiss was avoided as recommended by the government. Maybe 75% of the office population had their face masks on, both inside and outside the building. Given the speed that the face masks appeared, I wonder if they were kept in storage by the company for this eventuality. Business continuity planning at its finest.

Day three, and people seemed to be getting tired of the face masks. Those who had been wearing them, kept them round their necks, and I'm not sure if this was as a symbolic protective chalice, as a safety net in case they spotted someone who was sickly looking in their vicinity, or because they had not quite reached the stage where they had the confidence to take it off completely however much it was annoying them. Schools, universities and government institutions are shut. Hospitals and health centers are open 24/7. Keeping people apart in this crowded city is a tough proposition.

Day four. I'm not in the office as its a Saturday. A large handful of people are walking around the city wearing face masks, but I'd say the majority are not. The civil defense troops have been out in some parts of the city distributing face masks, and the metro is also handing them out. Unfortunately, I don't see the taco stand cooks wearing them, and I bet no one in the restaurant kitchens is. Maybe tonight would be a good night to stay in and cook!

The people of Mexico City seem to have taken this worrying situation in their stride, showing their typical relaxed, courteous (unless they're driving) and humorous character. The government has rolled its health plans into action quickly, calmly and without fuss, which is probably a good thing, as a city of 23 million inhabitants panicking could lead to more of a disaster than the potential spread of this nasty virus. The good thing is that people still seem to be getting on with their lives (based on the level of traffic outside my window).

Fingers crossed that the number show a positive decrease in cases over the weekend.

A post from the Improving It blog

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Twitter... And back again...

Back in January I announced I was not going to blog any more, instead diverting my creative juices to Twitter. Well, there is only so much that can be said in 140 characters, so I've decided to make a trial comeback. To try and refresh the blog a little there is no big makeover, just a change in name. For the astute, you'll see the name changed from "Improving New Account Opening" to "Improving It". I wanted to give myself some latitude in what I could write about, while not scrapping the great (and mostly relevant) content that is already in the blog.

So for my relaunch, welcome (back) to Improving It. In this blog I'd like to have a conversation with anyone that stops by. If you are interested in technology for solving complex business, social or economic problems, remember to click the RSS, Twitter or Email links in the side menu, and I'll be there ready and waiting in your feedreader, inbox or Twitter. Or just stop by this site.

I'm going to try very hard to make this a conversation, so please comment, trackback, tweet or whatever technology you use. If I see you link me, I'm more likely to read whatever you are writing about. If its good stuff, I'll probably return the favor. As such, its time for a clean slate, so the blogroll / links will be cleared out to make room for current exciting stuff.

Enough of the admin, I look forward to chatting with you all soon about technology, business, the economy, the environment and whatever else takes our fancy!

A post from the Improving It blog