Business Continuity Planning Lessons from COVID-19

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Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once famously remarked, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.” For many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic was the knockout punch that exposed the weaknesses in their business continuity (BC) plans.

In a recent global study by German consultancy Controllit AG, 90 percent of organizations activated their BC plans in response to the global health crisis. The vast majority rated their BC plans as helpful to very helpful in minimizing damage. More than a third (35 percent) said their IT service continuity management plan was essential to maintaining their operations.

However, 80 percent of respondents said they had identified the need to improve their BC plans as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, 62 percent said top executives have become more aware of the importance of BC management. Once relegated to the back burner, BC planning has become an issue of strategic importance.

Although health experts have been warning for years that we were overdue for a pandemic, many in the BC community view the COVID-19 crisis as a “black swan” event — a rare and unpredictable incident with severe consequences. Very few businesses saw it coming and were ill-prepared to deal with the fallout.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned. Even though an event cannot be predicted, it can help businesses better prepare for the unknown. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Distributed systems and remote access maximize resilience. Organizations have traditionally focused their BC plans on redundancy for critical centralized systems. That’s still important, but distributed systems and processes tend to be more resilient because they’re unlikely to be shut down by a localized disaster. Moreover, they enable employees to continue working wherever it’s safe to do so. Organizations should continue to refine their remote access technologies and retooling their BC plans for a distributed workforce.
  • Regular testing of the BC plan is critical. After going through the effort of developing a BC plan, there can be a tendency to think, “Whew! That’s done.” The plan then goes on a virtual shelf to collect dust. Given the rapid pace of technological change, BC plans need to be tested regularly to ensure that they address all components of the current IT infrastructure. Plans also need to be updated as business models and processes evolve.
  • BC processes should be automated as much as possible. In a crisis, humans may not be able to respond quickly to implement BC processes, or may not remember the steps they need to take. By automating simple BC tasks, organizations can relieve much of the burden from personnel and ensure that each step is performed accurately. Yes, people are still needed but they should be freed up to handle more complex processes.
  • BC plans need to be flexible. The pandemic has taught us the importance of flexibility in BC planning. Tabletop exercises can help organizations develop a response strategy for various scenarios. What if employees are unable to come to the office? What if there is violence within or just outside the workplace? What if critical data is corrupted or lost? The BC plan should consider these types of disruptions and be able to adapt to actual conditions.

Of course, the most important lesson is that BC planning is essential. While it’s impossible to predict every eventuality, a flexible, well-tested BC plan can help ensure business survival in a disruptive event!

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