There are few who would argue the emotional value of effective and timely communications to those affected by a disaster. There are also enormous financial benefits that can come from reaching out to employees, partners and suppliers in a time of crisis. According to recent research from The Information Storage Industry Center (ISIC) at the University of California, San Diego and the Storage Networking Industry Association, large companies stand to lose one-half percent of their market share for every eight hours of downtime they experience, while it takes a company three years to recover that same one-half percent of market share. How can effective communication help prevent such devastating losses?
Take, for example, a computer virus that infects a branch office of a large financial company, rendering parts of its network paralyzed. Immediately, the attack renders e-mail an ineffective mode of communication. It is highly unlikely that IT personnel at the point of origin could manually call each corporate location worldwide quickly enough to prevent further spread of the virus. However, with the proper communications technology in place, the same IT staff could automatically trigger an alert to a pre-defined list of contacts worldwide, instantly and simultaneously. Those contacts would programmatically be contacted via their preferred communications device(s) with the ability to escalate between devices and colleagues. A moderate threat may require only a fax warning, while a severe threat would warrant a home phone call to the relevant persons. Event-based notification technology can ensure that all the appropriate people are contacted in a matter of minutes – regardless of quantity or individual locations.
Similar results can be seen for a variety of other types of business disruptions the scale of which varies greatly. In some cases, the communications save the company time or money, while in other cases, it may save lives. Among the types of events that can be more efficiently handled through proactive communications are:
u Technology emergencies – network downtime, service interruptions, power outages, computer viruses
u Man-made emergencies – security breaches, oil/chemical leaks and spills, transportation incidents, threats of violence
u Natural emergencies – fires, blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes
u Corrective actions – virus protection updates, evacuations, inoculations, snow days
When evaluating the areas in which emergency technologies may be beneficial, it is important to consider not only reactive communications, as illustrated in the virus example, but also preemptive communications, which can prevent or mitigate potential damage.
The same technology may be effectively applied to proactively disseminate information in order to prevent business disruptions, eliminating the need for reactive action.
If, for instance, a hurricane is nearing an area where an insurance company has a large base of homeowner policies, delivering up-to-date weather information, home preparedness tips, evacuation routes, and contact information for claims can calm fearful customers as well as reduce the number of claims due to damage.
This simple action has long-lasting effects in the minds of customers, who are far more likely to remain loyal to a company that reaches out to them proactively in a time of need. The same would be true of companies that make a similar effort with their employees. Effectively managing out-of-band events through proactive communications translates to faster resumption of normal business activities and less frustration for all parties.
Once the need for effective communication during out-of-band events has asserted itself, enterprises are faced with another challenge – how to gain this capability. Companies of varying sizes, budgets and needs will approach this dilemma from disparate viewpoints, but there is a set of common factors that enterprises should consider in creating a communications-enabled business infrastructure.
What are the communications capabilities of my existing systems?
Many of today’s enterprise applications have some level of communications capability. For example, your CRM or SCM system may be able to generate e-mail alerts for particular events. It is important to assess the capabilities that you have at hand first to see if they are sufficient to meet your needs from a functionality and scalability perspective.
Can I develop this capability in-house?
For very large companies with limited need, a homegrown solution may be sufficient to cover areas of risk. However, developing and maintaining a communications infrastructure that is capable of handling large volume emergency communications tends to be very costly. For that reason, a number of providers exist that host communications platforms to address this very need.
Should I house this technology behind the firewall or with a hosted provider?
This is a decision that must be weighed carefully by any organization. Information security is a valid concern, and any company considering an outsourced vendor must ensure that their information is safe passing through a system outside of the corporate firewall. However, the benefit of outsourcing these services often outweighs initial security concerns. Hosted providers guarantee that a company’s ability to distribute information remains intact in the instance of a disruptive event. Redundant external hosting facilities provide an added measure of reliability that is impossible to achieve with an in-house solution.
In addition, there are several features of any offering that are imperative to developing a successful communications strategy for business continuity:
- SLA (service level agreement): Understand the time frame in which information delivery is guaranteed. Service level agreements vary drastically by provider.
- Escalation: Know what happens to your information if one or more of the people you are trying to reach are not available by phone or other means. Does the communication line reach a dead end, or is the option there to escalate the message to another device or person?
- Reliability: Feel confident in the availability of your communications infrastructure. Evaluate the up time, redundancy and security measures in place for any solution you consider.
- Interactivity and real-time tracking: In certain emergencies, it will be necessary to garner a response from the individuals you are contacting. Have they received the message? Have they exited the building? Have they taken the necessary corrective actions? The ability to interact with recipients and track responses in real-time ensures appropriate next steps can be taken.
- Voice initiation: Be sure you can utilize the system to trigger messages regardless of location or Internet connectivity. Voice initiation as well as IP-based initiation guarantees the system will be available to you under any circumstances.
Proven track record: Determine if the system has been road-tested to your satisfaction by examining the history and customer-base of communications providers under consideration. Obtain proof that similar companies have successfully delivered business-critical communications through the provider to ensure that your needs will be met.
Having considered the above, you are sure to find the solution that makes most sense for your organization. It is important to note that complex communications capabilities need not cost but a small percentage of what they could potentially save your company in a crisis situation. There is a broad range of offerings on the market, and one is sure to fit your needs and budget. Even though the implementation of a successful business continuity solution may appear to be an unwieldy challenge, tackling your organization’s communications channel is a comparatively easy and effective vehicle for transforming your continuity “plan” into an active part of everyday business operations.
Ben Levitan is the president and chief executive officer at EnvoyWorldWide, driving corporate growth and strategy. EnvoyWorldWide provides real-time interaction management services to wired and wireless devices. Leading companies worldwide are using EnvoyWorldWide’s real-time message delivery solutions to drive customer and partner communications, enhance business continuity efforts and communications-enable the enterprise. He currently serves on the board of directors of Primavera Systems, and is a member of the Council on Competitiveness.