Just as a carpenter needs the right tools to build a house, a contingency planner needs the right tools to build a business recovery plan. Sure, a carpenter could probably build a house using a rock for a hammer, but it would take an immensely long time. A contingency planner might be able to create an entire recovery plan using a pencil and a pad of paper, but that too would take to long. Fortunately, there are numerous business recovery planning systems available for you to choose from. Picking the right tool set to support your organization, now and in the future, is the critical issue. Here are a few tips to help you make the right choice.
Kick The Tires
Before you go looking for your tool kit, you should know that there are literally dozens of disaster recovery planning "systems" on the market today. There weren't always this many, but recovery planning has become a hot area and when opportunity knocks many answer. Don't jump at the first shiny looking planning system that you come across, and don't buy a plan just because it's offered by your backup site vendor. It may be right for you, but it may not be. You've got to be careful because business recovery planning is hard work and any plan you choose you'll have to live with for a long, long time to come. So Kick The Tires!
Here's a list of factors to compare when you go shopping for a system. Not all of these may apply to you.
Is it a database product or a word processor-based system, or both? Both is better. And, a relational database is better than other database schemes such as flat file. A relational database provides you with a single point of data entry and update, making it easier to manage and easier to secure.
Can you modify the plan to meet your unique requirements? For instance, some plans assume you'll include a section on each department, while others may be based on business units or some other structure. Be sure the disaster planning system you license is flexible enough to accommodate your intended plan structure.
Does the system support only information systems recovery or recovery of your entire business? Some will say, "but, IS is my business!"
This may be true in some cases; however, in the vast majority of businesses today, there remain a large number of manual or paper-based systems that help support the organization. We haven't yet, and may never, reach the Holy Grail of business: a paperless office. So, while we're waiting, you should consider whether your disaster plan must cover everything or just the information system.
What do you get for your money? Is the vendor selling a comprehensive, all-in-one kind of system or a modular, buy-what-you-think-you-may-need sort of approach. Does one licensing fee cover everything or will you have to repeatedly go back to the vendor to buy new components and sign new agreements? Is the software used by the vendor as a vehicle for selling consulting services?
There are a lot of new faces in the disaster recovery planning software field these days. How much experience does a vendor have? How long have they been in business? Who are their customers? What is the vendor's reputation among your peers and among the vendor's customers? A respectable vendor should be willing to provide you with customer references. This is a major purchase, so make that call and check those references-- you may be glad you did.
Product Development and Support
View your purchase as a marriage; a long term commitment till death (or a new job) do us part. Not only should your vendor be experienced, but your vendor should be able to show a steady progression of product development and improvement. In addition, the vendor should offer user support groups or conferences where users can provide formal input into the product development process.
Take Advantage Of Training Programs
When the contingency planner acquires a planning system one of the first issues after installing it, is understanding how to use it. If you were diligent in the evaluation process, you looked at a number of products. From your short list you selected a product that met your objectives and requirements and also seemed to be the easiest to use.
The products that dominate the industry walk a fine line between providing functionality and being easy to use. Training, therefore, is strongly recommended. This training may be just to learn the product layout and technical features. It may go further to help provide a method for using the tool. Even computer games can be learned more quickly if someone shows you how to fire the missile that kills the bad guy.
Some vendors will provide training classes at their facility; some will provide training at your site. Some do both types of training. Both methods have distinct tradeoffs.
Classes at the vendor's facility provide a fixed structure for learning the system and provide a vehicle for networking as well. However, be careful! Find out in advance if non-customers are allowed to attend these "classes." If so, the "training" could quickly deteriorate into a sales seminar.
On-site training tends to be more focused on your specific needs and progresses at the pace that best meets those needs. This isn't always the case with training at the vendor's site. Of course, with an on-site class, you won't be networking with other planners; however, a larger number of employees can benefit from the training since there's usually no additional cost for travel or expenses.
Regardless of where you get it, training will shorten your learning curve and allow you to spend more time building a quality plan. New users should not postpone training in order to "get more out of it." Don't forget, recovery planning is frequently a high profile endeavor and you'll want to get off to a fast start with a well-prepared game plan.
Bone Up On Methodology
Now that you’ve got the system installed and you've been trained how to use it, now what? Most products have a methodology, an underlying planning philosophy. If it's built into the system, print it out and read it. The methodology will provide a road map for building the plan. Good methodologies will start at ground zero and tell you what to do every step of the way, up to and including testing and plan maintenance. Many systems will also include a project plan. "Hot" Tip: when you read the methodology have a pot of coffee nearby--this is true non-fiction! Refine the project plan to accommodate your specific goals.
To get started make sure that the terminology in the product matches your environment. As an example, if you will build plans by business unit rather than department, change the product accordingly. Clearly define the goal of the plan. This prevents the project from going off on a tangent. This also lets everyone know, up front, what the plan is supposed to accomplish.
A plan is a combination of the work you as the planner accomplish, as well as input from critical business units. Decide how you will collect data.
There will be different data collection methods available depending on the product you select. All should be able to create paper collection forms. Some offer multi-user platforms with the ability to collect data in a client server environment. Still other products have data collection utilities that allow you to give a disk with forms and get a disk from the business unit with the data.
Whatever method you select for collecting data, you should use for maintaining data. This second issue, maintenance, is often overlooked. Products that use relational databases are designed to ease this maintenance burden by providing single-point entry/update.
Coordination Is Critical
In addition to collecting data from the business units, you as a planner need to work on coordination. This coordination includes setting up a command center, establishing a team structure to support the business units and even documenting how the plan gets activated. Naturally, as a coordinator, you will ensure that the business units are not all planning to use the same resource. This is another place where a database can be of value. By querying the tables you can see if any resource, like a recovery location, is over utilized.
Once your efforts and those of the business units are completed, the software should be able to produce workable, easily readable plans, specific to the recipient. This is a place that products that integrate database and text processing shine. The database helps to collect and maintain resource information. The text processor helps to publish the procedures. You will want to modify the plan (output from the system) to reflect the standards that your company has in place regarding documentation. Do all page numbers follow a particular methodology (e.g. section X page Y)? Do you put a revision date on every page? Where is the revision date on the page? Etc.
Vendor Support Is Vital
As you live with a system you will have questions. Ensure that the vendor offers telephone or on-line support services. The vendors with true staying power are the ones that provide regular maintenance releases. If a product is several years old and still carries the Rev. 1.XX designation, you should find out why there have been no major revisions. Keep your product current.
The best systems offer full graphical control over your final plan document. After all, you want your plan to look its best when you roll it out for all to see! The contingency planning software industry is now nearly 15 years old. There's a lot riding on your decision, so choose your tools with care!
Mark W. Avery is co-founder and vice president of Recovery Management, Inc.