The figures are well rehearsed:
- 80% of businesses affected by a major incident close within 18 months
- 90% of businesses that lose data from a disaster are forced to shut within 2 years
And yet it’s somehow unsurprising to find that few SMEs consider business continuity a priority.
Why do businesses avoid crucial planning?
The reasons aren’t hard to find. Apart from total disaster junkies no one particularly likes to think about crises and for most SMEs just surviving is a daily struggle. Keeping all the plates spinning in the air requires 100% attention, who is going to slice out even 1% just to consider a bunch of scary ‘what if’ scenarios?
But perhaps someone senior in your organisation feels the extra effort should be made – perhaps that person is you. What then? Well if potential crisis scenarios are scary then so is the prospect of dealing with business impact analyses, risk assessments and the whole task of writing a business continuity plan. Even the jargon is intimidating particularly for someone with little or no business continuity experience or training.
Large companies employ business continuity specialists, many have a whole dedicated department or can afford to employ outside contractors to help with writing and testing plans. Not an option for most SMEs.
In addition, resilience implies at least some form of contingency - for example a recovery site - and how many businesses can afford duplication when the boss is always trying to find ways to cut costs, not increase them.
The financial case for business continuity
The tried, tested and not always successful counter argument goes like this. If it seems like a lot of time, effort and expenditure to adopt business continuity practices, the cost of these will be as nothing compared to the cost of enduring a catastrophe and its aftermath without a plan.
It can be a persuasive argument, but so can: “Yes I agree, but right now we don’t have time for that, because just in case you haven’t noticed we’ve got 300 orders to get out, Acme Suppliers have just told me they can’t deliver until Thursday, and the wage bill needs to be met at the end of the month.” That can be a pretty persuasive argument too with the result that resilience gets kicked into the long grass.
But here’s the cruel paradox. Big businesses can often withstand a crisis; they have the money, the expertise and plans in place to deal with disruption. SMEs are far more vulnerable and business disruption, even for just a few days, can be terminal given their limited resources and manpower.
Business continuity and business as usual
So what can SMEs do to become more resilient? If the money and effort to produce and test a business continuity plan is either too much to ask or more realistically just not going to happen then what about building business continuity into business as usual? It might also lead to a more efficient workplace.
Instead of writing a BC plan, what about documenting workplace procedures, suppliers, inventories, equipment maintenance along with contact details for staff and external stakeholders? And talking of external stakeholders what about developing key stakeholder templates? Why is this person/company important to us, what services do they provide or what services do we provide them? Add contact details and names and you have a useful document that can be beneficial anytime, not just in an emergency.
Moving things forward
Inventories should include all the equipment your firm needs to get the job done and that even applies to very small businesses that operate from peoples’ homes. If you make a list of all your personal items for insurance purposes, you will likely do the same for computers and other business equipment. Have this list available so if the equipment is lost (perhaps your office is flooded) you know exactly what you need to get back up and running. Keeping that list current will also mean your list of insured items is easily updated.
Personnel changes can cause problems for small firms where far fewer people are available to fill gaps or be promoted. Staff training time will likely be limited so why not document office procedures and job descriptions including roles and responsibilities? Then if crisis strikes and key employees are not available – perhaps they are ill or on holiday – you at least have a clear indication as to what their jobs entail should other staff have to fill the vacancy or new staff are hired on a temporary or permanent basis. Once again you are streamlining office efficiency and will have information in place that will help during an emergency.
What about office security? A couple of years ago UK civil servants seemed to leave laptops on trains and in restaurants with bewildering regularity. That trend seems to have diminished but often a very light touch is displayed when it comes to information security. Once again your office document should include all the encryption and protection protocols your staff are expected to follow.
The same goes for IT back up, particularly now when even smart phones carry huge amounts of sensitive work related content. In many cases procedures for protection and storage have not kept pace with available technology. Make sure yours are up to date and documented.
Small steps with big impact
Writing a document setting out work procedures and job descriptions should not be intimidating for those involved in business. There need be no scary and little understood jargon and will not cost a fortune to produce – just the time taken by those tasked with it’s implementation. The one caveat is that this is a live document and will need constant updating - so someone will have to grasp that nettle and make sure it is reviewed on a monthly basis. If it’s well written in the first place that shouldn’t take too long.
Resilience can seem like a giant step for many small businesses, but good office management should be achievable by any dynamic and well-intentioned SME. Document it and you may not have a full blown BC plan but you’ll have the next best thing, which may well help your business run more efficiently in normal times and might just save your bacon in a crisis – now that’s what I call a return on time invested.
firstname.lastname@example.org" style="color:#3d9bbc">Jim Preen is a Senior Consultant at Crisis Solutions