Life during wait time ...
Life during wait time ...

Digital Business Continuity – Real Time Lessons from COVID-19

Summary: Current plans for Business Continuity during the coronavirus pandemic are being stressed in unanticipated ways. First in a series of articles about Digital Business Continuity – real-time lessons learned, improvements we can make now and in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on our lives. A truly digital business will tend to the human aspects, of course – your Team is one of the five critical components in your transformation. But what are we learning about the other aspects of digital business during this truly disruptive event?

Business Continuity is not Disaster Recovery

For most organizations, Business Continuity is an arcane and poorly understood part of your risk management strategy. Many companies have mediocre plans (at best) for major disruptions, and focus most of their attention of the topic of Disaster Recovery, specifically for transactional IT systems.

Expectations have grown over the years; early days, folks just wanted to understand how often you backed up the files, and who’s home closet did you stash ‘em. Fast forward to present day, and Disaster Recovery (DR) is a prominent checklist item for auditors. Top-notch IT infrastructure teams have addressed the problem by answering two simple questions, regarding system availability (Can we make sure the computers do not fail?) and recovery (how fast can we get back on line when they do?).

However, there is a third question that must be addressed, regarding Business Continuity: How do we continue to run the business while we wait for the systems to come back up?

It’s simpler – and more difficult – than you might think. While your employees wait for access to the systems and processes that govern their daily routine, how will we let them know if they need to come in at all? Can we answer phones, take orders, and service customers? Can we process work orders on the shop floor and ship customer orders? And how will we pay the bills, especially for critical services like phones, power, water, and (of course) data communications?

Good companies will create and test Disaster Recovery plans to react to system failures (the server crashed!) and, more recently, natural disasters (floods! snow! fire! earthquake!). Great companies will develop Business Continuity plans to address other challenges presented by these catastrophes – and deal with the systemic and physical disruptions that come along for the ride.

Business Continuity and COVID-19

The past few weeks have introduced a new kind of disruptive event, one that is pushing businesses to their limits. COVID-19 is proving to be the neutron bomb of business disasters; it wipes out the physical proximity and availability of people, while leaving systems and processes standing. Few DR plans are going into effect, because nothing is failing, really – we just can’t get people into the office or out to the floor, to get to work.

These are issues that few Business Continuity plans are built to address. A huge chunk of our economy is simply delayed (production and purchasing of goods), while another massive piece (food service) is shifting from restaurants to grocery stores; supply chains and employment models cannot keep up. The world is learning to adapt on the fly – at times with elegant new solutions, other times with cobbled together process and clumsy, even painful, results.

The result has been an unflinching reckoning for companies that have not thought through these scenarios, and are unprepared for life during wait time. Service-based businesses are having existential crises, as their fundamental reason for existence – providing person-to-person services, and a physical place to connect – becomes borderline illegal. For product-based firms, supply chains have seizing up for months, rippling down the value chain and disrupting a cascade of manufacturing and delivery events.

The human side of things is things is where much of the pain is being felt. A decades-long shift to outsourcing and the gig economy have enabled companies to lever up or down their spending on non-core work. To date, this has helped many companies manage costs. Unfortunately, now we are seeing huge parts of the economy choosing to lever down in unison – and the system can barely handle it. To be fair, this structure allows companies to spread the pain across multiple groups of people. Unfortunately, it removes a layer of economic protection from the most important people in the company – those that make and ship the products, and those that work directly with the customers.

Digital Response to COVID-19

On the other hand, there is a lot of significantly awesome stuff going on – changes in how work gets done that have ameliorated the massive impact of COVID-19 to some extent. It is no secret that the digital capabilities of companies are being put to the test; video calls and access to the internet have created a huge shift in where people do what they do (from the office to wherever). Some businesses are able to keep moving, keep delivering – and (more importantly) pivot to different products and services that will help the world out of this crisis.

The big digital innovation that makes this possible – the Cloud – owes a certain debt to the Disaster Recovery architects of old. The capital cost and technical complexity required to pull off highly available, highly resilient systems has been a significant contributor to the rise of the Cloud; that stuff costs a lot of money, can we just turn it up when we need it?

But success favors the prepared. Some businesses still cut paper checks, run the shop floor with printed work order travelers, and re-key faxes for orders and take cash for payments. In the scenario planning for this disaster, we might assume there would be a run on the bank – did anyone anticipate the lack of trust in paper money?

Hindsight is 20-20 – Capturing Lessons Learned

This is an ongoing fight, and I am hearing a lot of brilliant reactions to difficult situations:

  • One company, scrambling to supply their new home-based workforce with corporate-compliant notebooks, was networking around for help in procuring 500 laptops (about $1M). One call led to a sharp idea – how about Windows Virtual Desktops in Azure? Accessible by anyone with a reasonable home computer. Provisioned centrally with an approved, secure, locked-down image. Kitted out with correctly licensed software that covers all needs. Rollout time in days, with no difficult logistics. Cost estimates of $15K to provision them, plus about $2K per month in usage fees – for all 500 users! A much easier, flexible, and cash-flow-friendly solution!
  • Another company needed to scale their VPN connectivity – immediately! Global demand for remote access increased overnight, as every employee needed to work from home – like, today. While this area of the global network had adequate fault tolerance, any unplanned disruption would cut the company off from their core systems. (Think belt and suspenders …). Solution: the WAN engineers leveraged native technology in their existing Azure subscription to enable an alternate client access method to establish a secure pipe directly into their environment. Problem solved – with a very manageable cash flow impact!

Digital innovations are not limited to the IT team; Operations, Customer Service, and Product Development engineers are getting creative as well.

  • I spoke with a designer from a firm where the architects do weekly visits to the site of a job, checking with the contractors to answer questions and address unplanned issues. Social distancing prevents site-visits, but now things are working even better. Instead of a once-a-week, in-person visit, contractors and designers are video-connecting to review these issues popping up during construction. And the opportunistic added bonus? The interior designers need to verify how their specs for colors, patterns, finishes, and materials are working in the real-world. The on-site contractors are their eyes, adding a little time to their video sessions to show the office-bound designers how things look. While the color rendition of their smartphone cameras is not perfect, the productivity improvement is significant – and construction proceeds!

The Team Component of Your Digital Business

Of course, plenty of people are telling me about a very important Business Continuity issue – virtual happy hours! This is actually no joke – teams are pushing the perceived limits of video conferencing systems, and after working out some basic etiquette, the connections are working perfectly. Remember, your employees – the folks that perform your internal processes, connect with your customers, and design / sell / make / ship your products – they are one of the five critical components of your Great Digital Business – so don’t forget team, culture, values, collaboration, and connection in your Digital Business Continuity planning!

What’s In Your Digital Business Continuity Plan?

Few, if any, organizations have planned for a disruptive event such as COVID-19. We are all being tested in a number of ways – personally and professionally, with an emphasis on the human impact. This is something that is impacting the entire world – and our businesses, our neighborhoods, and our homes.

How can we share our lessons learned? How can we all prepare the people that we care about – our co-workers, our customers, our friends and family – leveraging the digital capabilities that surround us? What a tremendous opportunity to share what works – and what does not – and lift all boats in this rising tide of change.

This is the first in a series of articles, covering a wide range of real-time lessons we are still living through. I have more stories to tell – please feel free to add yours, or reach out and connect with me! I want to add your Lessons Learned to this list, and help many companies improve their business’ resilience in the face of future disasters.

Tell us your story!!

# 22 March, 2020

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.