2 Billion Dollars and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt 

(or, how I used the G20 to my advantage)

The G20 was probably the biggest news story in Canada for at least a couple of days in June, and certainly for a longer period in Toronto. The preparations by the organizers of the summit were echoed by those of us living and working in the downtown. As we drew closer to the arrival of the world’s leaders, it became increasingly clear that Business As Usual was not an option. The clear message from the organizers was to stay clear of the downtown core if you possibly could. Hatches were battened, and employers scrambled to adjust.

It seemed like a perfect opportunity to test our business continuity plan. 

What a great chance! A controlled situation, no real emergency, everything functional, just somewhat difficult to reach. It couldn’t be better. We could test some of the assumptions we made when we wrote the plan, and check on the completeness of our planning. Here’s what I learned.

Does everyone know what to do?

Fire drills are important because they help people to rehearse in advance of an actual emergency. Have you ever tested your business continuity/business resumption plans? Are they “real” for people, or do they simply exist on paper? Does everyone know where to get status updates, how to use remote access (if available), and what is expected of them if the office is inaccessible? Does everyone know how to tell when business as usual has resumed, and when to report back to the office?

Do your plans reflect reality? 

We have a set assembly point where staff meets after evacuating the library. It’s in the middle of Queen’s Park – the designated G20 protest zone. The destination was temporarily changed, to ensure that staff didn’t leave one emergency situation to walk into another. What other plans and procedures do you have which may require flexibility in unusual circumstances? Does everyone know what adjustments to make?

Hope for tech, but have paper ready

Mobile technology makes it very simple to keep in touch and to get the message out to employees, managers and other affected groups. What happens if the technology isn’t there for you? Here’s a great story from the June 23 earthquake.

Make sure your information is up-to-date

Check your phone trees – do you have current, complete contact information for all of your staff? Has anyone moved or gotten a cell phone? A number of my colleagues have Blackberries – do I have their PINs as well as the phone numbers?

Are my assumptions valid?

Writing a plan and living the plan are two different things. Are there gaps between what you thought you could do and reality? An example: we can access our desktops remotely through VPN, but we cannot redirect our phones without being physically in the building. Once we knew that, we could adjust. But without this test-run, we would have had to scramble to cope. 

It’s not likely that you’ll be able to anticipate every possible emergency situation. Build a certain amount of flexibility into your plan. Situations to consider in formulating your plan:

  • Evacuation scenario (with time to redirect calls and e-mail, and without)
  • Remote access, with infrastructure intact (electricity, telecommunications available)
  • Remote access with infrastructure problems (electricity, telecommunications not available or not reliable)
  • Long-term inaccessibility (how do you carry on business when your building is fire-damaged or worse?)

Don’t be so prescriptive that an unanticipated event leads to paralysis. Communication is the keystone of your plan – can you reach employees, clients, and others who need to hear from you? Can you get the information that you need from your manager, your organization’s emergency response team, civil authorities?

When will I be needed?

Think about your role in the organization. What aspects of the business need to get back into operation first? Do you know when your services will be needed, and under what circumstances you will be expected to be available? Has your organization decided what the core services are, and the order of operations in returning to business as usual? 

When the Northeast Blackout of 2003 knocked out operations at the OSC, certain staff members were expected to report for work immediately. Everyone else was asked to stay home so that they would not impose an unreasonable burden on backup systems. If the emergency had become more protracted, different resources may have been needed. Does your plan address the variability of need over time? How far out does your plan go – one day, one week, one month? Longer?

Relying on a little help from my friends

Business continuity in the Ontario government includes agreements between ministries and departments to host key staff from the other’s organization when an emergency affects only one physical location. Can you find allies who will give you a home when your office is not available? Commercial options are also available. IBM, for example, will help you replicate your key business processes and can host key staff in their facilities. 

The home front

Are you ready at home? Do you own a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio? Do you have a paper copy of your phone tree and emergency contacts? Public Safety Canada has information to help you stock a home emergency kit, or to develop a Business Continuity Plan

A controlled situation like the G20 closing provides a useful opportunity to test and review your strategies. It forces you to articulate and examine some of the assumptions you made, and helps refine your plan and your thinking. Turn an inconvenience into learning!

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