Hurricane Sandy has moved on, but the damage will linger for weeks and months to come. When there is a big disaster, there is always lingering damage that goes on and on, long after the “event” has passed on. In areas where there is the type of disaster occurs frequently, you can even go from disaster to disaster for years on end. By taking down America’s most important city, Sandy has raised America’s awareness of our new vulnerabilities when there is a global climate change. A lot of readers may be saying, “Luckily, I put together a disaster plan years ago, so I’m ready!” Well, maybe not! Disasters are getting bigger, and the planning of a few years ago may not be good enough for today. Let’s take a look at how you plan for a disaster, and see what sort of plan you need, and if outsourcing can help you!
New York has been a great example of what can go wrong. New York is a phenomenal place to have a corporate headquarters because of its natural advantages. Long Island sits between New York the Atlantic Ocean, soaking up winter storms, hurricanes and all sorts of storm damage. Every winter, Long Island is pounded by mother nature, so that New York City is protected. The geology is granite and schist with no mountains, so: no earthquakes, mudslides, avalanches or giant sinkholes. It’s not a coincidence that New York is the land of skyscrapers… it takes very solid ground to support these massive buildings, and little ground can claim to be more solid than the solid rock foundations of New York.
New York City has the most redundant and extensive man-made infrastructure in the world: power stations, telecommunications, water tunnels, sanitation, etc. Until recently, only a few neighborhoods (such as Coney Island, with its famous boardwalk) were regularly flooded. Yet, even with all of these natural advantages, New York has been hit by numerous outages in the last dozen year.
A slightly higher ocean, and more aggressive hurricanes have taught New York how expensive flooding can be, but New York has also been disrupted by: terrorists, power outages, political protests, transportation strikes, transportation failures, and many more localized outages.
How do you build your disaster plan? It’s not that difficult to build a plan, once you know what sort of disaster you’re trying to plan for. Let’s start your plan with these five steps:
PRIORITIZATION LIST: Very few operations are susceptible to just one type of disaster. You don’t need to plan for every type of disaster. In fact, when a “disaster” is small enough it’s more of an annoyance than an even that you need to plan for. Start by creating a list of the disasters that you think might affect you. If you live by a river, it might flood. Hurricanes and tornadoes tend to occur in specific areas. Electrical outages or transit strikes can happen anywhere. Ice storms happen where it’s cold… but where it’s cold may be moving. Likewise, if you use a cloud service and there is a cloud has a disaster (crashed by hackers, massive server problems, etc.) should you have a secondary service? If you have a service that is modestly or entirely outsourced, does the outsourcer have a disaster plan?
Once you have your list, you need to decide which events require a plan. For each type of event, how often do they occur and what is the “cost” (not necessarily in dollars). At this stage don’t try to come up with an exact cost, rather just look at if the cost is: high, medium or low. When you have the type, frequency and cost, you then have the primary information to prioritize your list. You can always change it, since new information is always arriving that could influence your prioritization. In the end, you will probably find that it’s not practical to plan for every possible type of outage. Likewise, you may find that the type of outage that is your top priority is just too expensive to develop a truly effective disaster plan.
DURATION: For each type of disaster, your response will assume different durations. For example, if you are impacted by a flood will you assume that it lasts for a day or a week? Very simple outages may be for just a few hours. This could be unstable power in your areas, a problematic internet provider or even a run of outages inside of your server center. The usual “plan” for a minor outage is to just sit tight. However, if the impacted service was partially outsourced, you might just re-balance work and send more to your outsourced service for a period of time. It depends on your specific situation, but when you move from hours to a day or more, your personnel becomes the key element in the plan. Even if you have stored cots, emergency food and spare clothes, any plan that involves using your main location as the emergency site tends to fall apart after the 24-hour mark. How will workers get back home? If they come to work but take 3 or 4 more hours to get to work, will you compensate them for this extra effort? If workers stay in your workplace, are you paying, them for an eight-hour day or for all 24 hours that you keep them. Have you discussed “disaster pay” with your workers?
No matter how much effort you put into preparing your primary work site, including power generators and redundant infrastructure, you cannot hold onto your staff when they too live in the disaster area. Even if your workers are safe in their workplace, perhaps safer than at home, they will become concerned about family and pets and the protection of their own property. Which brings us to our next step…
LOCATION: When you move your backup site to another location, you have a work site that will not be impacted by whatever disaster has impacted your corporation. A few years ago, a ship anchored in Egypt cut two international Internet cables when it dropped its anchor, this severely limited Internet availability across several continents for months. In 2004, the Indian Ocean Tsunami caused moderate or severe damage in 15 countries and lesser damage in half a dozen others. Few disasters will be this extensive, but most disasters affect a whole city, or more, at once. Fortifying your main location has a limited ability to keep your work moving when disaster strikes. You can have a backup site far away, in another city, state or country. But that means somehow getting your workers to a faraway location, which as complications and costs of its own.
Some work processes won’t need a backup site if the disaster is moderate and the groups are small. Lawyers, for example, could take their laptops and Tablet computers and go to a local coffee shop or a senior lawyers home to work as a group. Alternatively, your corporation may have some unused space a few miles away from your main office. The secret to these “not too far and not too long“ disaster solutions is that you must disseminate (and practice) the plan. Too often, when these semi-information plans are made and a disaster strikes, no one remembers what they are supposed to do. When many workers need to do SOMETHING during a disaster, they need to practice so that they remember their instructions.
DEDICATION: When the backup location is more than a few blocks away and will operate for more than a few hours, a number of questions arise. How will the workers get there? Will equipment work? Will you need additional technical support staff at the backup location to “turn on the lights," and set up new network IDs, test the printers, etc. The best option would be to have a parallel operation, with its own trained staff, ready to swing into action the moment problems arise? This would be very convenient, but also prohibitively expensive. The cost for a dedicated backup site could be reduced by having it scaled back, so that it could only produce work at a reduced capacity; for example, if you had a research group that was capable of producing 10 research documents, the backup site might only produce 3, or might take longer to turn around work.
This dedicated center could be outsourced, giving you greater flexibility in location, perhaps creating a backup center where your firm does not do have an office. Ideally, if you already have an outsourcing program, you might add disaster recovery to the program. This both minimizes the cost and reduces barriers to activating the disaster plan.
TRIGGER: Surprisingly, defining (and activating) the trigger is often the most difficult part of the plan, and is very often a reason why a plan fails. Take Hurricane Sandy. If you have specifically planned for a hurricane, you know that as the hurricane approaches, roads and airports close. Trains and public transportation are shut down. If the plan involves bringing people to a work site, or moving from one site to another, it’s too late to trigger the plan when the hurricane arrives. In storms and other disasters that provide warning, our natural inclination as managers is to resist triggering the disaster plan, since many storms change direction at the last minute or turn out to be less damaging than expected. Not wishing to disrupt operations and incur costs, managers often wait too long and then are unable to trigger the plan.
It’s one thing to build a plan, it’s quite another to activate that plan, especially if it entails significant cost. That’s why the trigger needs to be agreed to in advance. If basic expenses are not authorized in advance, such as hotel space to keep workers overnight, it may be exceedingly difficult to find authorizers in the middle of a looming disaster. It is quite typical for a plan to assume that senior managers will be available to coordinate disaster activities, only to find that these managers are out of town, stuck somewhere because of the disasters, or pulled into activities as another site that makes them effectively unavailable.
Whatever the scope of your disaster plan, hurricane Sandy has made it clear that every location needs a disaster plan. As weather patterns continue to change, the severity of disasters may increase dramatically, and even disaster-recovery sites may become less viable as weather changes make these locations less appealing. Take a new look at your plans based on the new weather patterns that Katrina, Irene and Sandy have exposed. As more weather changes occur, you need to be sure that disaster planning is not just a one-time event, but rather is an ongoing process that works together with outsourcing and other business planning functions. Disaster planning and outsourcing are mutually complimentary, and need to be planned together. If you do, you will be able to better balance the costs, and provide far more benefits, than if they are planned separately!