The role of technology in addressing this issue has taken the form of either an impediment or an enabler. Until recently, there were many technological roadblocks between organizations and individuals who would otherwise have liked to collaborate in problem solving. Software had to be installed separately within each business partner, making it expensive and time consuming; databases were on different platforms making it difficult to integrate; and communications channels were proprietary. The advent of the Internet and the emergence of a ubiquitous, reliable, and secure network with tools specifically designed to facilitate interoperability have largely eliminated the technology problem. These collaborative breakthroughs have been demonstrated in some of the most significant events of the recent past, specifically New York City’s 9/11 response and recovery, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. In these instances, very large numbers of disparate public, private, and non-profit institutions came together through technology to perform complex operations with great success. These endeavors serve as a model for collaborative response and have been a function of a new willingness on the part of institutions to look at partnership as a fundamental part of their response planning, and at technology as the tool that facilitates its implementation.
The Benefits of Collaboration
In looking at organizational and technological obstacles, we must understand that these are largely perceived impediments rather than physical issues. If properly set up and administered, the benefits of collaboration systems greatly outweigh the risks. Some of the benefits include:
• Access to the resources that your company needs to respond and recover more quickly. Examples are health, law enforcement, and rescue personnel; hazmat teams; critical supplier support functions; and government reimbursements.
• Access to external information that will speed company response in the face of crisis. This could include disaster maps, emergency procedures, resource availability, and organizations that rely upon your products or services.
• Connection with your key customers, employees, suppliers, and vendors who must be immediately notified if your business is disrupted. You may need to stop or delay shipments and keep these important constituencies informed of how the company is handling its response and when the disruption will be resolved, thereby keeping your customers and suppliers in the loop as you meet the crisis within your organization.
Bridging the Cultural Divide
Beginning with the preparation for Y2K and continuing through large-scale events of the last several years, both industry and government have undertaken rigorous evaluations of their systems and interdependencies. They have realized that for both daily operations and unusual events there was a compelling need for collaboration and coordination. That trend was dramatically accelerated with the tragedy of 9/11 that demonstrated how a disaster can impact even the largest and most robust economies. The fallout from 9/11 is still being felt in lost jobs, company bankruptcies and closings, and large unrecoverable financial losses. Given an increased awareness that as a country, as companies and as individuals, we must all be better prepared for whatever may come. There is a new willingness for businesses to actively seek partnering. However, the organizational issues blocking collaboration are still present. The overarching problem confronting business is, how can I maintain privacy while putting in place the mechanisms to collaborate effectively in a crisis?
Several local initiatives are under way that demonstrate how this partnership approach is being pursued today. In New York City, the agencies responsible for public safety (OEM, police, fire) are actively discussing more effective ways of working with business entities – including financial services and technology providers – that were so badly impacted by the 9/11 tragedy. In Los Angeles, under the framework of the Business and Industry Council for Emergency Planning and Preparedness (BICEPP) and in the context of its Partners in Preparedness program, the city and its major business partners are aggressively planning, training and implementing the mechanisms that will enable them to collaboratively solve problems in the face of emergencies.
In closing the cultural gap, corporate and government planners should take the following steps:
• Identify all critical dependencies, both public and private.
• Determine what information can be shared and what should be kept proprietary or shared more selectively.
• Institute formal policies and procedures to govern effective collaboration with outside entities and clearly communicate them with personnel.
• Regularly test collaborative capabilities to continuously improve them and ensure they will work when needed.
• Determine what employees should be connected to collaborative partners, and make sure you have backups in place in case the primary designees are unavailable.
• Conduct regularly-scheduled training exercises using a range of real-world scenarios to ensure that employees and partners are familiar with the new collaborative process so that appropriate information sharing becomes ingrained in business continuity and disaster recovery planning.
Technological Building Blocks
Unlike the major organizational challenges institutions confront, the good news is that the technology required to address these collaboration issues is now available and affordable. Thanks to the Internet, virtually every organization has access to a ready-made communications platform enabling all phases of secure and collaborative planning, preparation, training, response, and recovery without requiring significant additional investments in systems or infrastructure.
Powerful collaborative software tools now permit organizations to build and maintain their business continuity plans internally, maintain secure backup of the plans offsite, and make those plans operationally useful during events and emergencies through improved information sharing and workflow management. These new enterprise software applications take the policies and procedures embodied by the incident command system (ICS) and other sound corporate crisis management and supply chain management principles and put them in a format that can be readily shared internally and selectively shared externally via the Internet. Universal network access also means that legacy databases of all kinds – accounting, human resources, maps, building plans, inventory – can be readily integrated into response capabilities so that employees and partners can access the right information at the right time in the right format to be successful in everyday business disruptions, as well as in crises. These new systems are designed to be easy to use by any level of personnel, easy to integrate, and easy to maintain.
Making Partnerships Happen
As 9/11, the 2002 Winter Olympics and everyday problems we confront have demonstrated, the issues that business and government continuity planners face are getting larger and more complex. The good news is that experience has shown that there are ways that both public and private institutions can prepare to mitigate those problems when they inevitably occur. The historical obstacles associated with technological communications gaps are largely solved and can be addressed now with minimal cost to the organization. The most challenging issues are organizational, but by recognizing that these obstacles are more perceived than real, significant progress can be made in implementing the cultural and technological changes to permit collaboration between the public and private sectors. Only through collaboration can we truly open up our organizations to the wealth of information and resources that will allow us to weather difficulties ahead, and survive and thrive in these turbulent times.
Matt Walton is founder and vice chairman of E Team, Inc., the Canoga Park, California-based company that provides enterprise-level collaborative software to corporations and public agencies for use in emergency management, facility and event security, disaster preparedness and recovery, and business continuity.