Business continuity: an introduction

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Business continuity isn’t simply about planning for major disasters. It’s also about preparing for more mundane events like adverse weather conditions or strikes by unrelated industries. Here, Graham Chick explains what business continuity is about and why it’s important.

To many, there is little or no difference in meaning between ‘disaster recovery’ and ‘business continuity’ planning – but in reality there is a huge difference in both concept and principles to be followed when planning to recover from each. Some larger organisations even have two separate departments focusing on the differing effects and consequences arising from varying degrees of disruption to a business as a result of a major ‘disaster’. This can include a catastrophic fire, earthquake or hurricane, down to disruption to the business as a result of adverse weather conditions preventing certain employees from travelling to work on a specific day.

As the term implies, disaster recovery planning is all about planning for those major, catastrophic events

Business continuity: Why is it important?

  • Business continuity is not about planning for the major disaster that “will never happen to me”. It is about planning for those mundane events that happen all too often and are almost predictable, such as adverse weather conditions, strikes by unrelated industries and unfortunate accidents such as fire, floods and so on.
  • Business continuity is all about planning to maintain business as usual so far as is possible should your business suffer an outage or disruption that is no fault of your own.
  • Business continuity is all about maintaining confidence in your customers and suppliers that you will be able to continue in business should you suffer an outage – by being able to continue to meet your customer’s needs – and also be in a position to pay your suppliers for goods and services already supplied.
  • Business continuity planning is all about being able to stay in business no matter what nature of problem disrupts your business for a day, a week or longer.

– those that “will never happen to me!” The tragic events of 9/11, the horrendous consequences of Hurricane Katrina in the US, and the major fire at the Buncefield fuel terminal in the UK, which affected a number of adjacent buildings and businesses, all resulted in the need to plan for extended periods of disruption to a company’s business operations – from which, statistics prove, many companies simply do not recover.

Indeed, as a result these companies go bankrupt over the ensuing months and years simply because they did not have adequate plans in place to maintain their business operations following such an outage. Why? Because someone took the decision that such an occurrence could never happen to them.

Business continuity planning, on the other hand, takes a much wider look at any number of circumstances and events that could significantly disrupt the normal and efficient day-to-day running of an organisation, such that some form of alternative working arrangement needs to be considered for even a short period of time. It might take as little as an hour, or sometimes less, depending upon the criticality of the work function being disrupted, to restore ‘business as usual’.

What constitutes a disruption to ‘business as usual’?

The list of such occurrences is, of course, endless but have included in the recent past such things as rail/underground strikes, petrol shortages, power cuts, and adverse weather conditions such as snow preventing employees from travelling to work. It has also embraced terrorist attacks and ‘access denial’ situations where the police have cordoned off areas due to a fire or other high profile event, such as a road accident involving a chlorine gas tanker or petrol tanker.

Consequently, experienced business continuity managers – increasingly being referred to as risk managers in a growing number of organisations – are constantly reviewing what could happen, what could go wrong or what could disrupt their businesses by carrying out detailed reviews of the operational aspects of their business.

Known as a business impact analysis (BIA), this identifies which parts of the business are indeed mission critical and cannot be ‘down’ for anything other than a minimal amount of time to comply with certain service delivery contracts or service level agreements (SLAs). A BIA will also identify those elements of a business that can be recovered at a sedate pace given the non-criticality of those precise functions.

The art of effective business continuity planning, however, is not only not forgetting to consider what might initially appear to be the most insignificant of business processes. It also means not overlooking the most obvious because reliance upon that particular facet is simply taken for granted. Unfortunately, this is often the case where the recovery of an organisation’s telecommunications infrastructure is concerned.

Putting these comments in to context, while it is obviously imperative to have both a disaster recovery plan to deal with those major outages that we all hope never happen, and a series of business continuity plans in place to deal with the myriad of lesser evils that might bedevil the day-to-day operations of a business, the recovery of an organisations data and IT infrastructure is always seen as paramount. But is it?

Recovery of a company’s data and IT systems is obviously vitally important, but in true business continuity terms, where the business is trying to maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach, it is absolutely useless – unless everything else is in place so that employees can continue to use that data.

What does this mean for the call centre?

In terms of a call centre operation, there is little point simply having a solution to recover your IT and data systems if your telecoms infrastructure, for instance, is no longer working and you have no plan in place to recover your incoming calls. Similarly, there is little point in having a solution to recover your IT and data systems if you have no plan in place to enable your call centre agents to continue working from an alternative location or locations should the business’ single call centre become inoperable for any number of reasons.

So what issues are likely to have the greatest impact on an inbound call centre?

Perhaps this might be an overly simplistic approach but broken down in to its constituent parts, a call centre comprises a number of skilled agents, sitting at their own desks within their own cubicles, with access to a PC connected to a live database and a telephone or headset. These agents sit in expensive buildings that are purpose built and either owned – at a very significant capital cost – or leased at an equally significant operational cost.

All of these specialist call centres require sophisticated automatic call distribution (ACD) technology capable of delivering the incoming calls to the most appropriate agent, in the quickest possible time, while also providing the agent with the most appropriate information on their PC screen before the call is delivered.

Every call centre is striving to reduce call answering times and call duration times to become ever more efficient to the point of offering 365x24x7 availability. Having invested so much money in creating such a state-of-the-art facility, surely it makes sense to protect that investment by taking a serious look at the adoption of a comprehensive business continuity strategy?

The crucial point here is that many, if not most, outages are outside of a call centre operator’s control. It is not your fault that some poor unfortunate digger driver cut through the telephone cables serving your call centre building. It is not your fault that a fire in a building down the street resulted in the police evacuating all surrounding buildings, including yours, as a precautionary measure. Neither is it your fault that half of your workforce has to stay at home to look after the children because the local school has been closed by the Government because the long-feared flu pandemic has arrived.

And if the above examples are insufficient to convince those of you who still argue that “it will never happen to me”, then there is still the issue of compliance. The likes of Sarbanes-Oxley in the US and Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulations in the UK require a growing number of businesses, including financial institutions and their call centres, to adopt comprehensive business continuity solutions. The alternative is that they risk being closed down or could be prevented from operating if and when their conventional systems fail.

Given that the most important operation within a call centre is communicating with its customers – whether they be their own customers or somebody else’s customers, as is the case with the increasing number of outsourced call centres – the loss of its inbound telephone calls must be every inbound call centre’s worst nightmare. But more of that next month.

Graham Chick is managing director of Gematech
Tel: +44 0800 328 8354

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 30th Nov 2006 - Last modified: 30th Jun 2017
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