How enterprises need to rethink business continuity planning
This article was first published in The new IT playbook, a report that explores what it means to be resilient and adaptable in the face of disruption.
Traditionally, business continuity has focused on the idea that a few things might fail. A network operating center loses power. An earthquake, flood, or other natural disaster shutters offices in a specific region. A criminal or terrorist act shuts down a neighborhood or city. In most instances, solutions focus on systems redundancy, failover, and workplace recovery. Never did anyone fully anticipate a major health crisis closing nearly every business facility on the planet and forcing all active employees to work remotely for months at a time.
That was simply beyond the realm of imagination, so when COVID-19 erupted, it forced most businesses into serious crisis management mode.
"Most organizations right now are still trying to figure out how to keep operations running and revenues flowing," says Phil Goodwin, an enterprise infrastructure analyst at IDC. "This is an event unlike anything we've seen in modern times, and it has long-term implications for how enterprise organizations will think about business continuity planning. When they get beyond this situation, many will have to stop, reassess, and think long and hard about how they do it better next time."
Numerous lessons will be a part of this reevaluation process, most notably the need to build more resilience and agility into continuity planning, analysts say. Traditionally, most preparation has centered on operational recovery with less focus on minimizing workforce disruptions. But analysts insist stronger, more thorough, and more elastic approaches will be needed to prepare for future events.
"Our research shows only 38 percent of business operation functions are covered by current disaster recovery plans," Goodwin says. "We also find that, of those organizations that do have plans, only about 9 percent rate themselves as fully mature in business continuance. So there are definitely big gaps in the industry with regard to continuity planning."
To close those gaps, analysts recommend ensuring resiliency across each of four key dimensions of business resiliency: technology, people processes, operations, and corporate culture.
Ensuring technology resiliency
From a technology standpoint, most companies have typically focused on ensuring that networks continue running and that people can access them in the event of an emergency. While many companies in recent years were on a path to enabling more workers to perform their jobs remotely, few had invested in the tools required to make that happen on a widespread basis.
Since many enterprise organizations have now invested considerable time and money in remote work capabilities because of COVID-19, analysts predict that they will be more amenable to allow it after the crisis ends. As such, companies will need plans for not only keeping more remote employees connected on an ongoing basis but also keeping all of those people online should another severe disruption occur.
Those plans would have to consider areas most likely to be affected by such events. For example, they would need to ensure that network stability and capacity does not falter if significantly higher numbers of people start logging on remotely. They would also want to consider how to provide employees with the most effective communication and collaboration tools available as well as the underlying virtual desktop infrastructure needed to support everything. And they would absolutely have to employ the highest possible levels of cybersecurity across every access point on the network.
Another important consideration would be the remote worker learning curve. Even before COVID-19, firms like McKinsey warned 87 percent of executives were either experiencing a skills gap in their workforce or expecting one within a few years. Worse, less than half had a clear sense of how to address the problem. To meet the challenge in the context of business continuity, analysts recommend crafting talent strategies that include ongoing training, tips, and guidance. That way, if another major disruption occurs, employees will not lose too much time due to a lack of understanding of the technology they're using.
Pushing people and process resiliency
Vigorous process resiliency should be another key consideration of any continuity plan.
This involves practices such as virtual onboarding of new hires, support for bring-your-own-device programs, and providing all of the cybersecurity and human resource policies and procedures employees are expected to follow while working outside of the office.
Process resiliency should also entail making sure virtual employees have access to many of the same comforts and support systems they enjoyed in physical settings. That includes power backup for uninterrupted connectivity; ergonomic chairs, desks, and computer gear; wellness programs to address employees' physical and mental needs; and virtual social events to sustain team morale and togetherness.
"We find it's simple to focus on technology aspects of business continuity but also easy to lose sight of the people part of that equation," says Chand Basha, worldwide business continuity planning manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "People are the biggest asset in any organization. So, if you do not put processes in place to keep them online, provide knowledge and support on how to connect to critical resources, and at the same time, ensure they're healthy and happy, your continuity plan is not likely to be effective in any major disruption."
Organizations know all too well that they have to ensure operational resiliency to stay in business, which is why many are so focused on critical systems right now with the COVID-19 pandemic.
But analysts say as companies move beyond the current crisis and look to the future, they will need to think through ways to function that go beyond urgent needs and address alternate methods to conduct work without entering physical offices or holding face-to-face meetings.
"The biggest element for operational resiliency is the ability to keep the business running almost unattended," says Clifford Grossner, who heads cloud and data research for Omdia, an independent analyst and consultancy firm. "Before the current crisis, most continuity plans assumed organizations would have at least some people on site keeping everything running and answering customer calls. We now know you can't assume that, and organizations should be looking at more options, like digital signing of documents, that don't require you to be in an office or in front of someone to get a job done."
Changing corporate culture
Corporate culture is another important but often overlooked element of business resiliency.
Before COVID-19, remote work was already rising in popularity as more digitally savvy millennials and Gen-Zers entered the workforce. But there was still a deeply ingrained preference among corporate leaders to have most workers physically present in corporate facilities. Some believe employees lose creativity and productivity when working from home, analysts say. Others think it's just human nature to slack a bit when not under the watchful eye of management. Neither sentiment is necessarily validated by statistics (the opposite may actually be true). And if enterprises are to going to evolve and enable more remote workers, their cultures will also need to adjust to make way for that, analysts say.
"We've always had a lot of societal and cultural resistance to remote work where management just felt that if it didn't see you, it couldn't be confident you were doing your job," says Grossner. "But when COVID-19 hit, guess what? All of a sudden, everyone is working from home, and we find out the model actually can work. A big cultural barrier now seems to be permanently lifting. I don't know if we'll ever go back to that old way of thinking, and future continuity planning should not allow it.
Keep it going
Analysts say post-COVID-19, business continuity planning will need to be a more active and recurrent process within organizations. They note that has not often been the case, however. In fact, all too often, it's just a one-time project that's forgotten almost as soon as it's completed.
"Very few enterprises test their disaster recovery plans to make sure they work," Grossner says. "When this crisis started, I literally pictured someone taking an old book from the shelf, blowing the dust off of it, and that was their disaster recovery plan. Many organizations think they have a solid plan, but when they actually try it out and it hasn't been IT tested or updated in quite a while, it doesn't work so well."
Daniel Kennedy, research director at 451 Research, adds that organizations that have made strides toward improving business continuity processes during the current crisis shouldn't take their foot off the gas when it's over. Unfortunately, he says many do just that.
"The further away an enterprise gets from a continuity event, the less attention they pay to business continuity or disaster recovery plans," Kennedy says. "Some of that relates to resources. Enterprise leaders tend to concentrate on problems at hand. But championing business continuity requires a good deal of discipline, and organizations should strive to keep their efforts going after all of this is over."
Some analysts say the best way to do that might be to hire outside consultants to help.
"It's valuable and helpful for organizations to engage third parties who have a particular knowledge and depth in their industry," says IDC's Goodwin. "Consultants often have a breadth of knowledge they can bring to the table, offering information and insights a client company may not have considered. It's the old adage about not knowing what you don't know. Frequently, consultants can help you understand what you don't know and address a variety of contingencies that might not otherwise come to the forefront."
Nine steps to continuity maturity
Basha notes that HPE Pointnext Services has defined a transition framework involving nine discreet steps―observe, triage, align, adjust, design, stabilize, transform, sustain, and optimize―to help organizations transition from immediate crisis management to full-blown business continuity maturity.
In the end, the idea is to go from a point where companies are simply observing various problems and reacting to one where technology, people processes, operations, and corporate culture are all aligned and enhanced to quickly adjust to any emerging crisis.
"Major disruptions never come with an appointment," Basha says. "Building resiliency must involve ongoing processes that prepare you for the unknown and allow you to adapt to change in a more agile and structured way. Organizations should seek to prepare and prevent the next disruption rather than going down the same old path where they aren't ready and have to repair and repent for any mistakes."
Lois Boliek, an IT security and assurance strategist at HPE, also contributed to this story.
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This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.