The current emergency offers a rare opportunity to assess how well our business continuity plans can cope with disruption on a large and unexpected scale, argues Movashan Moodley, Senior Consultant: Advisory Services, at ContinuitySA.
From a business continuity perspective, the current COVID-19 worldwide emergency is providing a “stress test” second to none. Most business continuity plans would have made provision for a pandemic in the wake of SARS, MERS, swine flu and others, but I doubt whether anybody imagined that the global response to the pandemic would, in fact, end up being the greatest disruption of all.
In short, then, COVID-19 is testing not only the basics of our business continuity management strategies but the quality of the resilience that we have managed to integrate into our organisations. I am here defining resilience as the ability to respond to, and recover from, any disaster or disruption, even those ones that we might not have anticipated and planned for, or which have unfolded in totally unexpected ways.
We can define business continuity broadly as the process of responding to, and recovering from, any business disruption in the shortest possible time, thus minimising disruption. Two important elements of business continuity management must be emergency response and crisis management. Emergency response, as its name suggests, is immediate response to a disruption, where actions need to be taken swiftly in order to safeguard life, limit injuries and prevent the escalation of physical damage.
Crisis management is much broader, and encompasses the strategic decision-making and leadership required to manage and coordinate all types of disruptions.
Black swan landing
The latter, one could argue, provides the organisation with the capability to respond to something unexpected by adjusting the existing business continuity management strategies to meet the unplanned-for circumstances—in short, with resilience. As I argued above, the COVID-19 emergency constitutes just such an event, a risk that was generally foreseen but that materialised in totally unexpected ways.
A classic pandemic response plan would cover four phases, from mitigation and prevention through to preparedness, response and recovery. A key element of the plan would be communication—it’s rightly observed that clear, accurate, consistent and timely communication is essential to managing a pandemic and thus to recovering from one.
Of course, the plan has to be flexible: policies need to be reviewed and refined in order to accommodate supply chain disruptions, the need to move to alternative work areas (hopefully, the organisation has a work-area recovery partner) and even equipping some employees to work from home.
In addition, organisations need to track staff symptoms related to the pandemic, and ensure that infected people do not enter worksites. Organisations must also give thought to how they will support staff during a pandemic, including the families of those who succumb to the illness.
Most pandemic plans, however, are likely to make the assumption that the pandemic itself is the challenge. What has emerged this time round is that the government’s response was the real black swan—who could have foretold that the whole economy would be shut down with everything that implies? In other words, the organisational pandemic plan has to adapt to the national one developed by the government, which has changed quite rapidly and whose principles are not necessarily clearly articulated. In this case, for many organisations, sustainability turns out to be how well they can survive a closed period imposed by fiat—financial and communication provisions are critical—and then how rapidly they can adapt to altered working conditions as lockdown is eased.
Time will tell, but already we can see that some of the core assumptions of business continuity management will need to be revisited in order to accommodate this kind of event.