Avian Flu -- Are You Ready?

The following post is way off (what I consider the) topic for this website, but I found it interesting anyway.  What follows is a press release from Accenture, a management consulting firm (formerly Andersen Consulting). 

It’s food for thought.  I wonder how many online brokerages have implemented an avian flu continuity plan? 

Are Businesses Prepared for the Avian Flu?

The thought of a global virus like the avian flu affecting more than a quarter of the world’s population is an unpalatable, but not impossible prospect. Such a pandemic would pose a very real and unprecedented threat to lives and livelihoods.

“The impact on human life could be catastrophic, but the potential economic impact to organizations across the world also cannot be ignored,‿ said Robert Dyson, Business Continuity Practice Lead in the United States for Accenture, the global management consulting firm. “It could have a personal impact on every person in the world.  If companies cannot sustain operations then they fail which means that people are put out of work.  When people are out of work they don’t get paid which has a direct impact on the individual’s standard of living as well as the economy.  This is why our governments have this issue on their agenda and are looking for full participation from the business community.”

A report by the US National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy.  Meanwhile, the London Chamber of Commerce reported that only one in five businesses would survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu.

Of course, no one knows when or indeed if avian flu will transmute into a form that can be passed from human to human.  Yet, awareness of the possibility is already roiling health organizations, governments and businesses throughout the world.

Most importantly, according to Dyson, organizations must ensure that business continuity considerations are embedded in their general operations.  Its processes and activities, he said, must be considered in terms of how the organization would continue should a significant portion of the workforce become incapacitated.

“For businesses, anxiety levels should be rising fast,” said Dyson. “Companies would most likely face severe restrictions on international and possibly local travel, significant disruption to their supply chains as increased inspections disrupt logistics, and a potential general slow-down in business.  This would be particularly true for companies in the travel and hospitality sector, but it has the potential affect virtually every industry.”

Preparing for the worst

Businesses, said Dyson, need to understand the realities of a pandemic. 

“If people are too sick too work, they will still be too sick to work at home,” he said.  “In addition, school closures will force many employees to remain at home to look after children, and overwhelmed health systems will mean that many people diagnosed with the infection will have to be cared for at home, again limiting otherwise-healthy employees’ ability to work.”

Additionally, remote working will result in segregation of the workforce, convincing employees to avoid areas of mass congregation – such as an office environment – as well as situations like air travel where large groups inhabit confined spaces for long periods of time.  However, said Dyson, remote working is only part of the solution. Organizations should also consider identifying “skeleton” teams of key staff who would be the only ones to come to work in the event of a pandemic.  Primary and backup teams for key activities should be identified and organized on a split-shift, split-site basis to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.  Implementing a change freeze on all systems development will allow IT development staff to be redeployed into support positions if required.

Measures will also need to be taken within a company’s facilities, including the careful monitoring and maintenance of air conditioning, and additional antiseptic cleaning of key “at-risk” office facilities (e.g. telephones in a call center, consoles and desks in a data center operations bridge, etc.).  Even measures such as closing the site’s catering facilities and providing pre-packaged food must be considered.

Communication

Dyson and other business continuity experts believe that companies must keep employees aware of a pandemic threat, and up-to-date on developments and procedures followed. 

“The most effective way to maintain operations is to optimize the use of existing resources – particularly in the case of global companies, where scale and spread of operations can provide some protection,” said Dyson. “This includes making sure that methodology and approaches are consistent wherever the business operates, so that similar skill sets can be employed around the globe to service different clients. Work can be transferred from one location to another while maintaining consistent standards and results. 

“Clients should not notice any degradation in the service received. This approach is not just good business practice, but goes to the heart of a sustainable approach to business continuity.  The business continuity strategy must become part of the business-as-usual operating strategy.”

Many businesses - particularly in the financial sector - have already taken steps to ensure that an embedded approach to business continuity is a part of their operations. This required detailed planning to ensure that skill sets and capacities were matched, and that the impact of additional work flowing from one center to another did not critically impede the ability of resources in a new location to carry out their own work. 

Avoiding common problems

A common mistake that many companies make, said Dyson, is that they invest in continuity on a one-off, project-basis. 

“This means that continuity is assigned to a particular team of managers, who conduct a review, make recommendations and, maybe, implement plans and solutions,” he said.  “In this case, continuity fails to become part of the lifeblood of the organization and, as such, does not receive the attention and support it requires from senior management to ensure plans remain fit-for-purpose and up-to-date.”

To address the emerging threat of an avian flu pandemic, he said that organizations must first assess the ability of existing plans to cope with a significant disruption to the workforce.  Once any necessary updates have been made, an individual should be assigned to track developments with all emerging threats, and to determine any further plan updates that may be required.

“It is revealing to ask companies what they spend on business continuity,” said Dyson. “Often, the response will be that - in the absence of a specific project –little or nothing at all. However, data backup and storage, for example, are daily activities and most businesses maintain a redundant network. These are all business continuity-related activities, but are not often thought about in that way. To change this, senior management needs to move the issue of business continuity on to their permanent agenda. They must ensure that they can achieve an integrated view of all the activities and processes taking place within the business that relate to and support ‘business-as-usual’ operations in the face of unexpected and adverse events.”

A Preparation Checklist

Here is a checklist for businesses to consider in preparation of such an event.

1 – Assess specific risk. All companies are different – the environment in which they operate, their structure and their processes will determine the extent and relevance of specific risks to their business.

2 – Place a value on the disruption to particular processes and activities. How critical to business performance are the availability of particular functions, and what are the costs of downtime?

3 – Sort in terms of priority and investment in continuity the impact on high-value areas of the business.

4 – Develop business continuity strategies that make the most of existing resources and locations, and investigate how to take advantage of a global operations network.

5 – Ensure that business continuity plans assume at least a 25% reduction in available workforce, and liaise with local public bodies to identify appropriate response plans if a pandemic is announced.

6 – Deploy exercises and simulations of components within the business continuity plan to ensure such plans will actually be effective.

7 - Think the unthinkable. While operating in the hope there will be no cause to implement a business continuity plans, organizations need to make sure that should the worst happen, disruption is as brief and isolated as possible.

Posted by on 04/06 at 10:51 AM

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