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

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