Ready for trouble is ready to do business

Business-continuity planning aims to keep your operation viable despite unexpected events, be they traffic snarls that strand employees or an earthquake.

Businesses should prepare for the unexpected, such as fires.
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Business-continuity planning aims to keep your operation viable despite unexpected events, be they traffic snarls that strand employees or an earthquake. Nicola Gale spends her workdays counselling companies on the importance of planning for the unexpected. But it was not until recently that she appreciated just how crucial having such a plan could be. An electrical fire broke out in the ceiling tiles above her desk one afternoon. She dashed out of the office, looking for a fire extinguisher.
Her startled office mates told her there was only one, at the ground-floor reception. And the receptionist, the only person with access to the extinguisher, could not be found. "People were in the office fanning the flames," Ms Gale says. Luckily, the fire burnt itself out. Ms Gale, who is a part-time consultant with iON Risk Management in Dubai, has worked in the business continuity field, or helping businesses plan for the unexpected, for more than a decade.
That fire was the most personal reminder of how important such planning can be. If the fire hadn't burnt itself out, what would they have done? It's easy to see what's at stake in a fire, but what about a power cut that shuts down computer systems? Or a sandstorm that prevents workers from coming to work, or an outbreak of swine flu that afflicts key staff? About 80 per cent of businesses affected by a serious incident either never reopen or close within 18 months because the interruption hits them where it hurts the most - customer relationships, cash flow, reputation and staff morale, according to AXA Insurance UK.
One crisis familiar to many UAE residents was last year's 200-car pile up on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai road. The route used by nearly all commuters who travel between the cities was shut down for more than five hours as emergency crews tended to the injured and hauled away wreckage. Beyond the immediate concerns of the dead and injured, the motorway closure meant thousands of workers were unable to get into Dubai, leaving many businesses short of staff.
And while car crashes might be avoided with a bit of common sense, there are other disasters that cannot be anticipated, such as a militant attack or natural disaster. The UAE lies on several fault lines and was last shaken by an earthquake in 2005. The quake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, killed 10 people in Iran.Four years later, and many of those firms still don't have a plan for how to operate if such a disaster would occur again, says Ms Gale.
"Planning for business continuity is common sense but people get too bogged down in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day running of the business," she says. But that might be starting to change. The influx of US and UK businesses opening branches in the Gulf is starting to push executives to do such planning. The home office, armed with these sorts of contingencies, wants to make sure Gulf operations comply.
Daman, the national health insurer, has been conducting a complete analysis of its business-continuity readiness for nearly two years now, according to Dr Michael Bitzer, its chief executive. "Anything from fire protection equipment but also expensive measures such as setting up a second data centre if HQ was completely destroyed," Dr Bitzer says. Dr Bitzer, who joined the organisation at its start in November 2005, has led it from when it had a staff of two, giving him an intimate knowledge of each of its departments. Today, Daman has six main clinics and employs 1,320 people.
"The biggest surprise is the little details," he says. "Which direction does a door open in case of fire? You realise weaknesses you wouldn't have noticed before." Meanwhile, Ms Gale is leading an effort to set up Business Area Recovery Sites in Abu Dhabi, which would be among the first located in the Gulf. Companies throughout MENA and India could have contracts to set up operations at these sites if they find themselves unable to work out of their home offices because of a crisis.
In order to come up with a business-continuity plan, the first thing any company or government should do is a risk assessment. The process is like sitting your company on the couch and, with a consultant playing the psychiatrist's role, drilling down to the essential elements: Who am I? What do I do? Executives are "often quite surprised what their core focus is", Ms Gale says. The process reveals what companies tend to take for granted.
Often, managers assume they will have staff working from home if they are unable to get to the office. They assume their IT operations can handle so many workers logging in from outside the system when, in reality, their systems cannot handle the traffic. Many small companies, in particular, forgo this process thinking they lack the sort of budget and staff necessary for continuity planning. But there are steps smaller firms can take, with a cost of less than $500 (Dh1,836), to make sure they are prepared for an interruption in business.
Ms Gale advises that a small firm should seek out a similar company and design an arrangement to exchange workspace with the other should one of them become unable to work out of their shop. And they should set up a call tree, with all employees' names and ways to contact them. It sounds simple but many firms do not have this information in one place. It is key to be able to alert employees quickly if a business place is inaccessible because of an incident or if they need to report to work in another location. Business owners should put together a "battle box" of items necessary for doing business. This can simply be pens, receipt books and business stationery.
This box should be stored in a location other than your business, either left with another business whose battle box you will store, or in secure storage far enough away from your business. Be sure to check the contacts of this box every three months or so. Batteries for flashlights might need to be replaced. Large or small, one key element businesses need to identify in an organisation is what is called a "single point of failure", Ms Gale advises.
Companies, especially small ones, often develop processes and procedures informally, where tasks and responsibilities are divided up. Day to day, the company functions well. But should something happen to this person or they cannot be found, then what? "Is there one woman who's been with the company for 10 years and is the only one who has a password to crucial pieces of information?" she asks. "Get that information out of her head!"