By Cole Emerson, CDRP
Why would you need a consultant? There are a number of valid reasons why a company would bring in an outside resource to assist with the development of a business resumption plan. The first reason is pain avoidance. An outsider with extensive experience can help the company avoid mistakes and help ensure a successful project. The second reason is to provide expertise in specific technical areas that is not available in the company. In many cases it is too expensive to maintain on a full time basis certain technical experts on the corporate payroll. The third reason is to provide an additional resource because the volume or work or the project timeframe is greater than internal resources can meet. Another reason may be to provide an objective or neutral view of various problems being discussed or addressed. The external resource does not have an agenda and typically is not involved in the politics of the organization. The best reason is to provide a resource to teach internal personnel everything they can and ensure that the company is self sufficient in their planning, response and recovery efforts.
Knowing What You Want
It is very difficult to buy a service or product when you have no idea of how to use it or what the end-product should look like. Any product you receive could seem sufficient if you donít have a clear picture in your head of what you want to accomplish. What you want to do, versus what you need to do, versus what management wants you to do, may be entirely different. These three requirements are almost never consistent even though in most cases there is overlap.
Consultants with 10-15 years of experience in the planning process and with some knowledge of your industry can help you formulate the program and close the distance between want, needs, and expectations. Merely saying that you need a business continuity or disaster recovery plan is like looking for your car parked in the Los Angeles Airportís long term parking lot without knowing the location, color, license plate, make, model, or year. If you tell the attendant that you want a car, you hope that he will give you one that runs and you should be happy that you were able to even get a car. The time spent in developing a clear picture of the end product is well worth the time and effort.
What exactly do you want? Do you know? Are you looking for a plan for the business, data center, data network, voice systems, mid range systems, client servers, distribution centers, manufacturing operations, or the total enterprise? The guidance and skills you require are very different for each planning area. Some senior consultants have basic skills in most of the above areas and can provide general guidance in defining the type and scope of the plan. No single consultant, to my knowledge, has indepth knowledge and hands-on capabilities in all planning areas. There is a vast difference between knowing what to do versus actually doing it.
As much as most of us would like to think that we can handle everything, we canít. Only a team of the most competent experts in the respective field can help a client develop a comprehensive enterprise wide plan. No single individual can accomplish that. The most important initial question is what is the scope and type of plan. The second most important question is what is senior managementís expectation. The end product must meet the needs of the organization plus the expectation of senior management.
Every client wants the most experienced consultant they cannot afford. If you are going to bring in a senior person with over a decade of experience and success, plan to pay the price. As I saw quoted in a recent article by Mr. Norman Augustine in the November/December 1995 issue of the Harvard Business Review, ďThere are, of course, costs associated with using independent experts, but, as the old adage goes, if you think an expert is expensive, try hiring an amateur.Ē
The Senior Consultant The client should use the appropriate level of expertise and skill for the type of work to be accomplished. Junior consultants do not have the years of experience nor have they developed the instinct required to develop an appropriate strategy for most comprehensive programs. Merely having knowledge of what needs to be done is not adequate. The initial planning process requires years of experience to know and avoid the mistakes made by other companies and focus on the most critical areas required to ensure success. Regardless of what some of the new consultants think, you cannot get everything out of a book. (Except my book, of course.) The initial planning process goes far beyond the mechanical process of gathering information or completing checklists. The culture, the companyís long term plans, and senior managementís attitude about risk acceptance and crisis management are issues that must be taken into consideration in developing an effective planning strategy. Knowing the barriers that you have to overcome are half the battle of making the project successful. A senior consultant should have at least 10 years experience in the disaster planning field. This experience should be a mix of time as a practitioner as well as servicing clients as a consultant.
The Specialist The specialist is needed in those areas where detailed knowledge in high tech, scientific, or extremely complex manufacturing environments are required to develop sound strategies, processes, and options. The specialist usually acts as a subordinate member of the team on a newly started planning project.
Where there is an existing plan, the specialist may be directly contracted to expand the plan and address new areas where the technical expertise is not available within the company. Circumstances that might warrant this are, the level and type of expertise is not available internally, the internal experts are too busy, or there may be internal conflicts over the strategies, processes, or options. A third party can provide valuable assistance under these circumstances. Planning involving hazardous materials, engineering requirements, wafer fabrication, manufacturing and process systems typically require a specialist in the particular field. Specialists should have five or more years of experience in the area of expertise and preferably the experience is recent.
Entry Level Consultants This consultant is great for gathering information and assisting the client with the formatting of the information to help ensure it is current at the time of an actual disaster. Content and use of the information are decided by the senior or specialist. Form and format are the domain of the entry level consultant. With the guidance of senior personnel or the specialists, the entry level consultant can almost jump over tall buildings with a single bound. That is, if he or she is told how high to jump. Otherwise they tend to hit their knees if the building is higher than two stories. Unfortunately, many entry level consultants claim and advertise capabilities that would amaze even the most senior members of the profession. Having even 100 years of experience in data processing does not make a contingency or disaster recovery planner. In todayís environment, the business, client server, and manufacturing environments are the areas that beg for attention and skill. While experience in technology may provide a good basis for a specialist, it does not qualify most consultants to provide more than basic guidance for business operations. Contrary to the technologistsí belief, business operations are more complex and require more diverse skills than data processing. My god, you have to be able to interface with people! You even have to talk to them! Can you imagine? The computers and networks sure didnít give me this much grief!! The business changes too much, I canít seem to get anything to stand still long enough to plan for it.
Seriously, the entry level consultants provide the most cost effective resource for repetitive, information gathering, analysis and formatting requirements. It would not be cost effective to use a senior professional for these tasks. Entry level consultants have one to two years of experience in the field.
Experience With Disasters
Ideally, all consultants have been through major disasters and have saved thousands of lives and their companies millions of dollars. In theory, no senior consultant should provide guidance unless they have personal experience in planning for and managing a major disaster. Of course their companyís also experienced no interruption of business following the incident. Great concept except most consultantsí previous companies wouldnít appreciate the opportunity. Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, most consultants have never experienced a major disaster. For most of us who have and were successful, we were in the right place, at the right phase of plan development, with an exceptionally talented team, and were damned lucky. There is other experience that may qualify the consultants without their going through a major disaster.
Completion Of Multiple Tests And Exercises
In place of hands-on experience at saving the world, the next best experience would be designing and implementing comprehensive technical tests and business recovery exercises for multiple companies. The technical exercises should involve diverse sets of technology and be comprehensive enough to closely approximate the production environment. End-users should be involved in the tests and the systems exercised at close to a production level of transactions.
The business recovery exercises should have encompassed most of the major business operations with the personnel utilizing production systems during the exercise. In other words, the business participants conduct business as usual at the alternate site. While simulations for the technical and business operations are a great start, the real test requires the organization to closely approximate their initial recovery environment.
The consultant should have experience in the management of incidents, as well as the configuration, equipping and use of Command Centers. Additionally they need extensive experience in the information management processes used during major incidents to prioritize, track, and resolve problems.
A common denominator of most successful recoveries is the companyís ability to effectively manage the incidents. Technical, business, and manufacturing recovery is not effective without a command team managing it. If the company operates without a command team, they may recover but it will be painful and expensive.
Knowledge Of The Industry
The senior consultant should have a solid understanding of your industry. Experience with companies in a similar industry, knowledge of the business processes, and knowledge of the technical systems supporting your type of business. If the company is willing to invest the time to orient the consultant to the company, then the combination of an experienced recovery consultant and knowledgeable internal personnel can work very well.
Very few outside consultants will ever know your company as well as you. It is critical that time be spent ensuring that the individual developing the strategies and procedures understands the organization. Each company is unique in itís requirements and while a template may fit a majority of the requirements, the differences in operations may affect the recovery.
The Ability To Communicate
Consultants at all levels must be able to communicate. Planning is accomplished by the exchange of ideas. All great ideas are not brought into the company by the consultant. The consultant must be able to listen as well as they speak. Excellent writing and speaking skills are absolutely mandatory, especially for those consultants who are directly interfacing with senior management. If they cannot communicate, they cannot help you educate and guide management.
Ability To Interface With Senior Management
The senior level consultants must be comfortable with interfacing with the most senior executives within your organization. They should be fluent in the language used by your senior executives and be knowledgeable of the business issues faced by these executives. The executives do not expect the knowledge of the consultant to be limited to the issues of recovery planning. While it is truly the objective of the senior consultant to make management more aware and knowledgeable of business recovery, the subject is very negative. Senior management would much rather talk about the more positive business issues or opportunities. The recovery subject has to be integrated into the context of other business issues that are truly senior managementís primary concern. The senior consultant must be significantly more versatile in his or her knowledge of the industryís issues than any subordinate member of the team.
Planning is a people project. It requires getting people to envision some terrible event that may turn their lives upside down and make them think positively about it. The participants must believe that they can recover successfully regardless of the size and scope of the incident. Otherwise, they may adopt a fatalistic attitude that since itís going to be so bad, why do anything at all. It takes excellent peopleís skills to deal with such a negative subject, keep the participants motivated, and thinking positively. A good senior consultant always has the ability to paint a grim picture but still have most people want to buy it from him or her and hang it in their bedroom.
Teacher ó The Ability To Pass On The Experience
All consultants on the project must be excellent teachers. The consultantís primary objective is to contribute information, knowledge, and their experiences to the client. They must ensure that the client understands how to plan for, respond to and recover from a disruptive incident and ensure they are as self sufficient as possible. Any planning methodology that is designed with ongoing maintenance required from an outside consultant is unethical and poorly designed. It is unlikely at the time of the disaster that the consultant will be available to mount their white stallion and charge to the clientís rescue. The client always has the primary responsibility to respond to the incident and be effective in that response without immediate outside assistance. For new issues or exercising and expanding the plan, it is reasonable to bring the consultant back to assist. This is advancement not maintenance.
Working With A Consultant
The project can be an extremely rewarding or extremely frustrating experience for all parties depending on whether clear ground rules have been established between the client and the consultant. A small effort at the beginning of the project can make the relationship positive and rewarding for all participants.
Define The Scope Of Work
The consultant and the client must clearly understand what the scope of work encompasses. Most plan development efforts are as much a discovery process as a finely defined project. The participants should discuss what tasks they are and are not going to address during the project. If the scope of work changes, both the consultant and the client should agree on the change. If the scope requires additional time on the part of the consultant, the budget should be adjusted. If the budget cannot be adjusted, the consultant and client should discuss and agree on what of the original tasks will be delayed or eliminated. All parties need to be aware and sensitive to the fact that there are only so many hours in the day and project participants have a personal life outside of business resumption planning. A client that increases the scope of the project, changing the deliverables, but not changing the timeframe or budget is not reasonable. While each party should be willing to contribute some time to ensure a quality product, there are boundaries that should be discussed at the beginning of the project. This may avoid non-stated expectations and ultimately ill will between all parties.
The budget seems to be an area of great mystery both from the consultants and the clientís side. If the budget is truly fixed, then the client should advise the consultant. If the client has some flexibility in the budget or has built in a fudge factor, share that information with the consultant. Any recovery planning professional, internal or external, will attempt to provide a quality product within the financial constraints imposed on him or her. It is always better for the client to obtain a high quality product that has been downsized from the original objectives, than a sub standard product that may not work.
Many clients try to tempt the consultant with promises of additional work. ďIf only they could contribute a few more hours or do a gratis presentation.Ē If additional work is truly a possibility and the consultant knows that decision is within the negotiatorís power, then he or she may consider it. The problem with this scenario is the consultant may believe they can fix or augment sections of the plan at a later date during the follow-on work.
It is always better for both the client and the consultant to view the project as a single effort with no follow-on work. All participants will invest greater effort to ensure the end product is complete at the end of the project.
Define The Roles Of Project Participants
At the beginning of the project, all project tasks should be assigned to individuals. The number of hours to accomplish the tasks should be estimated and discussed even though the proposal has already covered it. If resources that were planned on during the proposal writing are not available at the start of the project, the project plan should be adjusted. The consultant and the client should agree, in writing, on who will fill the void and what additional costs, if any, are involved. Using specialists or senior personnel to do administrative work is not smart and will ultimately affect the product or the budget.
Clarify The Anticipated Interfaces
The client should discuss with the senior consultant which consulting team member will interface with what management level in the client company. The client and senior consultant should review the background of each consulting team member and be comfortable that the individual is capable and appropriate to interface with specific managerial levels within the organization.
Define Hours And Deliverables
While senior consultants can be fairly precise in predicting the work effort associated with the development of a quality plan, the reality is that until the consulting team spends sufficient time to understand the organization, its priorities, potential project conflicts, they can only estimate the hours of effort. The client and the consultant should be prepared to adjust the hours to ensure a quality product.
The consultant should discuss the deliverables with the client and if possible provide examples. Many problems can be avoided if an effort is made to clearly communicate what the end products encompass. Many times the term used to describe the end product is misinterpreted. The client and consultant may be using the same word but envisioning something totally different.
Mr. Augustine, in his Harvard Business Review article, described another incident where Martin Marietta and G.E.. were talking merger and during the last couple days before closure, evidence appeared that the Justice Department might not approve pivotal elements of the transactions because of alleged antitrust concerns. Had the merger been stopped, the G.E. and Martin Marietta stockholders would have lost overnight approximately $2 billion in market value they had initially gained when the combination originally was announced. At that midnight hour, Martin Mariettaís top two executives-both engineers-learned to their chagrin that the definition of high probability is highly subjective. To the many lawyers from some of the nationís most prestigious law firms, high probability meant considerably more than fifty-fifty, perhaps even a 70% chance of success. To the engineers, it meant more like 99% or better. Thus because of two distinctly different interpretations of high probability, the leadership of each company found itself plunged into a predicament that it had considered extremely remote until that moment.
Meet With Consultant On A Regular Basis
The development of the plan is a team effort. At the beginning of the project frequent meetings of the project team are common and desirable. If there are issues or expectations not being met, either by the consultant or the client, they should be discussed and resolved as quickly as possible. Since the transfer of knowledge is the primary objective of the consulting team, frequent meetings are not only for communicating project status but for training of the clientís project team.
Other Miscellaneous Thoughts
Make sure the consultant understands the company. It is difficult to plan for something you donít understand. As much as possible bring the consultant up to speed on future company projects. In order to design a plan that not only meets current needs but can be expanded to meet future needs, the consultant needs to know where the company is going. Provide space, etc. for the consultant. Smart companies have for years provided space for IBM and other vendor personnel in the data center. This increases the availability of the vendor and makes the vendor more a part of the organization.
The cubicle, supplies, personal computer and other resources make the consultant more effective in supporting the company. In addition to increasing their accessibility, they can work project tasks on-site rather than losing time commuting back to their office.
Provide voice mail ó increases communications. Voice mail is a valuable resource to company personnel. It increases the effectiveness of communications between the client and the consulting team. Critical communications that would normally be delayed until project meetings can be exchanged between the consulting team and the client. Putting the consulting team on the company voice mail is usually a simple process and little cost.
The consultant will provide references from previous consulting engagements. Prior to calling the references prepare a checklist of questions that will satisfy qualifying the consultant as someone you want to perform work for your company. Remember, if you have the responsibility for taking up where the consultant left off, your career depends on the quality of the product. As previously mentioned, try to get references from the same or similar industry.
Contact References ó Take Time To Discuss In Depth The Performance Of The Consultant And Team
Many times, the client asks for references because the corporate policy dictates it. It is important that the references are checked. Remember, references provided by the consultant represent their best work. Asks if the reference is aware of other projects undertaken by the consultant. If you have the time, ask the listed reference if they are aware of any other consulting engagements conducted by the consultant. If the names provided are not on the list, ask the consultant if they mind you contacting the unlisted references. While every consultant eventually completes a project in which the client is not totally enamored with the end product, this should be an infrequent occurrence.
Check with the references on how close the consultant was to meeting the budget. Forget asking if the consultant went under budget. There is always more to do than anyone at the start of the project could anticipate. Like horseshoes and grenades, getting close counts.
To summarize all of the above rhetoric in some key points:
® Experience counts ó The successful implementation of a plan is the best indicator of the quality of the consultantís product.
® Experience in your industry is an important criteria in choosing the consultant. If that is not possible, experience in similar industries should be required.
® Experience in designing and implementing plans, as well as exercising teams of people is a critical criteria. The consultant must have taken clients through the total process from concept to proving the plan works.
® A team of consultants is always better than one - especially in diverse and technically complex environments.
® Check references ó Donít be afraid to ask hard questions of the reference.
® Believe that you get what you pay for. If you only want a checklist or mechanical approach to planning, you can do as well without outside assistance.
® If the consultantís primary objective is other than to make your organization self-reliant, donít hire them.
® Consultants provide the best products to clients who listen and trust them. Make them part of your team and treat them like a member of the organization rather than a hired gun.
This article represents, in addition to the authorís, various opinions of individuals who were gracious enough to provide their time and thoughts. They provided insight from both the buyers and consultantís view of plan development.
Cole Emerson, CDRP is president of Cole Emerson & Associates in Fair Oaks, California.
This article adapted from Vol. 9#1.
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