Mobile communications helps in business continuity

Published 29 April 2010

The essential step for companies to survive disasters: enable people to work from home; instead of using technology to recover from an incident, we are now at the point where we can use it to prevent the incident having much of an effect; the key is to build technology into the company’s operations from the start

If disaster strikes, how prepared will your small business be to recover its operations and carry on? In a world in which customers expect an increasingly rapid response and hate being inconvenienced, any disruption to service can be fatal, causing reputational damage, and potentially losing sales. In an economy still recovering from its own disaster, the cost of re-acquiring customers is something few small businesses will be willing to swallow.

Financial Post’s Danny Bradbury writes that disaster can take many forms. We may not have to worry too much about famine, but fire, flood, and even being forsaken by transit workers are all potential show-stoppers for a business. Can mobile communications help protect your business against the worst eventualities?

One of the first steps in disaster recovery might be to stop using the term at all. Bradbury writes that experts are beginning to feel it is an outmoded concept. When the worst happened, and businesses found their operations hopelessly disrupted, they would pull out a playbook with a set of procedures designed to get things up and running again, and to recover any data that may have been lost. This may have involved several steps. Companies may have had to move staff to a location that had been kept in reserve for just such an event, for example. That location may have been stocked with backup computers ready for employees to use when they got there. The whole thing was woefully expensive. Things are changing, says Al Berman, executive director of the New York-based DRI International, an organization that trains companies in business continuity practices. “You’re hearing less about recovery and more about continuity,” he says. “We have to be available, 24/7. It’s a requirement to do business.”

Instead of using technology to recover from an incident, we are now at the point where we can use it to prevent the incident having much of an effect. The key is to build technology into your operations from the start.

Bradbury suggests that a good example is the H1N1 epidemic. Luckily, it did not have anywhere near the effect everyone had feared. People went to work, and companies continued operating. If the epidemic had ballooned, the symptoms become more serious, and people decided to stop gathering in public places, companies would have found themselves unable to continue their operations. “Unable, that is, unless they used technology to enable people to work from home,” Bradbury writes.

Wireless communications systems now support data transfer at broadband speeds, making it easier for employees to work from locations other than the office. Companies with the foresight to suitably equip their employees with the means to work remotely would be able to carry on doing business, even if many of those employees were unable to make it into work. Transit strikes would become less of a problem, and more serious environmental disasters would also pose less of a risk.

Taking this one step further, businesses might consider making use of this distributed working model on a more permanent basis. Instead of having to get employees to switch modes and work from home in the event of an emergency, they might reduce real estate costs and build business continuity directly into their operations by having them work from home or on the road all the time, or at least for a set number of days a week.

This approach would make small businesses less susceptible to physical disaster, by making them less reliant on a single point of failure. When combined with other mobile working tools, such as software as a service (discussed previously in an earlier article) this approach to everyday working practices could reduce the risk of business disruption further still. Bradbury writes that it is important to remember this applies more to some sectors than others. Getting call centre and administrative employees to work from home is possible. Shifting your widget manufacturing plant to a home-working model is going to be prohibitive. Even if a disaster disrupts manufacturing, remote working can at least keep the brain of a company going, while the body recovers.

There is another upside to building remote working practices into a business continuity strategy: the whole thing comes pre-tested. “One of the biggest challenges for companies that use a disaster recovery playbook as a means of protection is that the process of recovery is difficult to test,” Bradbury writes. “When disaster really strikes, how confident can people be that a disaster recovery plan will actually work? If companies are constantly protected against disaster, then the plan doesn’t need testing, because they are executing it every day. A shift from one model to the other is therefore well worth considering,” he concludes.