Why Should We Care?
Ubiquity of the Internet
Everyone in the organization uses the Internet heavily for work and at home. It’s now second nature to get personal and business e-mail, plane tickets, pricing for cars, books, CD’s, and conduct general research for work on portals like Google, AOL, and Yahoo. It has become an information utility everyone uses and everyone expects others to use. Virtually no one at work needs to be educated in the use of the Internet anymore.
How did this happen? In retrospect, the answer is obvious. It’s a tool that is easy to use, powerful, cheap (often free), and available to anyone, anywhere. People have always craved good, convenient information and interactive communications. The Internet is just the newest and best way to deliver this capability.
All new software is fully embracing the Internet. This change is typical of technology, periodically undergoing generational change affecting everything that comes later. Examples are the shifts from flat file to relational databases, mini to microprocessors, and client-server to n-tiered systems development. Entire industries and enormous companies rise (e.g., Microsoft, Intel) and fall (e.g., DEC, Worldcom) when these types of changes occur.
Current State of Continuity Planning Tools
Business users are currently employing two established classes of tools for their continuity teams.
Enterprise Software – These are the proven, evolved software solutions with many years of history. Their roots are generally in relational database technology of the 1980s and early 1990s. For users able to make a substantial commitment over many years and accept standard planning processes for all their facilities, this direction has been the obvious solution. In these cases, there have been functional and organizational benefits for many institutions.
Despite these benefits, the drawbacks have become substantial over the years.
• Implementation comes at high cost, with some organizations spending millions of dollars on their solution.
• Considerable effort is needed to install and learn the functions of the software.
• Users with a more casual role in the planning process often don’t use the software, not having the time needed to learn it.
• The software is generally from non-strategic IT software vendors, with some perceived risk as a result.
• The basic design and user interface is antiquated in Internet terms.
• Changes to meet the shear variety inherent in different industries, organizations, processes and facilities have been difficult to accomplish.
There has been a general effort by these vendors to become compliant with some elements of Internet-related standards, especially in the effort to graft browser technology as a graphical user interface (GUI) onto existing platforms. Some analysts would term this effort “putting lipstick on the pig,” a pretty harsh way of saying that many years of extensive and expensive efforts on older technology remains under the hood. It’s hard to find a software company in any discipline that can afford to throw away an older, successful core design in favor of a different information system paradigm. The past investment is too great.
Personal Software – Most institutions, some very large, rely on Microsoft Office software on the desktop. They may buy some template libraries and other closely related add-on’s to help increase efficiency and streamline workflows. Low costs and shallow learning curves are a major reason for this direction, as almost everyone already knows how to use these tools.
Even so, as with enterprise software, limitations exist.
• It’s difficult for the various facilities of the institution to adopt and use common standards, with everyone “rolling their own” versions, making enterprise-wide views of the planning process impossible.
• Plans get locked away on desktops, not available to executives, managers, auditors, process owners, or other plan developers.
• Versions of the plan and updates can get muddled over time, especially if staff is transferred or lost.
• Lacking standards across facilities and organizational boundaries and with no easy access, reviews of plans can be cumbersome.
• The plan is ultimately based on paper, making changes and improvements difficult to administer.
• Many functions that should be automated (e.g., surveys, lists, contacts, etc.) can only be done with manual intervention.
• In the event of a disaster, the paper plan may not be readily accessible or up-to-date.
In any case, personal software will continue to be used by many planners. For a small facility with few team members and limited risk, this is perfectly appropriate.
At large organizations, with many facilities, complex functions and spread-out staff, this may still be the choice at first. Limited budgets, limited strategic direction, a need to start planning quickly, and a lack of good alternatives contribute heavily to this type of thinking. However, these substantial institutions should look to the Internet for a forward-looking, powerful direction.
All User Types Need Help
Besides the core group of dedicated continuity planners who do have the time to master sophisticated enterprise software or work through the limitations of personal software, there are others who do not get good support from either software approach.
• Organizational process owners, with overall responsibility for their part of the plan but without the time or resources to fully engage in the work.
• One-time or part-time contributors, where their information is only occasionally needed.
• Executives, who only need to review the plan from time to time.
• Survey respondents, who may only be contacted sporadically.
• Auditors, also connecting to the plan infrequently.
• New planners at other facilities, who may want to leverage parts of other plans as they build or augment their own.
• Anyone without a plan copy, who is affected and possibly helped by the plan with immediate needs after a disaster.
• Vendors, who could easily supply their readiness information through a Web-based questionnaire.
A planning tool is much more powerful and effective if it can automate support for all these many types of users.
Web Capabilities Fit Continuity Planning
So, consider the everyday capabilities of the World Wide Web right now, delivered to desktops over institutional networks and to homes, at little or no cost:
• Easy-to-use, standardized, free browser, connecting intuitively to a variety of internal and external information resources. There are dozens of disaster recovery sites, free to peruse for research or a specific event.
• Free access to extensive information via powerful search engines, yielding enormous quantities of targeted research instantly, from Web sites all over the World.
• Instant, interactive, anywhere communication via e-mail, even with small wireless devices (e.g., Blackberry) that are becoming increasingly pervasive. In fact, the wireless Web was the only reliable method of communication for post-disaster support in the early hours of 9-11 and for days after.
• Sophisticated document management, for many document types for any number of users across any number of facilities, anywhere in the world. Versioning, authoring, permissioning, controlled access, and workflow are all easy to find and enable.
• Easy response to questionnaires and surveys, with automated distribution, collection, management, and analysis of data.
• Information dissemination, with automated subscriptions, allowing easy, reliable event notification and external and internal team communications.
• Automated contact management, able to synchronize team contact information with other personnel files in the organization. Wireless Internet can then automatically and in real-time push needed information to team members and others in the organization during events.
• Team authority can be enforced by using document versioning, workflow, and security to control access and distribution of plan elements.
• Web-based presentations and training are available for inexpensive training, exercises, and team awareness.
• Task assignment and management can be enabled, ensuring team responsibility and performance.
• Search engines for team Web sites, able to look through plan libraries, locate missing files, update plans, or for new users as they start building their plans.
Again, all of these powerful automation capabilities are available to continuity planners, right now.
Fit of Web Functions with Industry Planning Model
The most widely used professional practices model in the United States for continuity planning is from DRI International (www.drii.org). Right now, there is a good fit with the 10 stages of their continuity planning process.
The table on the previous page describes the steps in the DRII model, with editorial comments on the extent to which Internet capabilities can currently support the continuity planning team.
The Internet-Enabled Vision
Consider the following vision of an institution and continuity planning team that fully embraces the Internet for the planning team.
At a high level, whether the user is a dedicated team member or casual participant, all functions before and after events are available with simple, intuitive Web connections.
In the event of an incident, the software immediately supports the needs of the crisis management and emergency management teams, as well as recovery and restoration.
There is no worry about finding a current version of the plan. All relevant tasks are selectively pushed to team members via the Web, accessible instantly via interactive wireless devices for the more crucial roles. Telephony becomes a supplementary facility to more reliable methods.
Why try to converse with a team member or participant, when cell phones and wire-line phones probably aren’t working anyway? Even if the phone is working, you are likely just to get voice mail because the recipient is on the line or too busy to pick up. Instead, their previously decided tasks are sent securely by wireless Web.
At a more detailed level, consider the Web-enabled vision that can support the following functions for team members:
• Every part of the continuity planning process is consistent with the way team members handle information for their other tasks in the organization, with virtually no training required.
• For any new plan element, team members pull up a standard template or form fitting a standard planning process. They’re filling in the blanks quickly and surely, not worrying about inventing a process.
• For a new facility, planners use a full set of standard templates, as well as viewing other plans in the system. A search engine allows ad hoc queries when searching through other plans.
• Other internal and external groups needing to interact with the planning team (e.g., EMS, public authorities, key vendors) do so using the Web. For example, when questioning a vendor on the state of their continuity plan, it can be done through an automated survey instead of a clumsy, slow letter.
• Tasks are assigned by the team and then monitored automatically by software.
• Contact information is automatically kept fresh by frequent updates from human resources files.
• News and events affecting the team are distributed automatically through an electronic subscription capability.
• Executives, managers, or auditors can view the current state of any plan, at any location, from anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night.
• Plan contributors can quickly fill out a survey, as easily as ordering a book from Amazon.com, when e-mailed a link to a questionnaire. The software automatically compiles and reports the results, as well as tracking who has not responded.
• Desktop exercises easily involve remote staff with Web teaching capabilities.
• When an event happens, everyone has access to a current version of their plan elements via wireless Web or desktop computer. Critical tasks are automatically pushed to team members for immediate action and response.
• As stated earlier, post-incident support is automated by pushing pre-established tasks and allowing other information access to users via wireless Web.
The productivity, quality, and responsiveness of the continuity planning team takes a quantum leap because the group now has the best possible tools to do their work.
The diagram Internet-Enabled Continuity Planning (Figure 2) depicts software based entirely on Internet components.
How To Start?
The best news is that you have probably already started without knowing. If your plans use desktop software like MS Office, or can be reformatted to do so, these documents are completely consistent with an approach utilizing the Internet. So, your team and the other users probably own almost all the needed software and know how to use it.
he missing ingredient is a special type of application called a “portal,” with the special components needed to manage documents and team communications to your requirements. In basic terms, a portal allows an organization to aggregate content (documents, databases, and applications) and provide access through a single point of entry (i.e., a Web browser). A portal also allows users to contribute content and communicate with one another through standard tools, like e-mail and chat.
These tools come at all price points and capabilities, and do need to be configured for planning team use.
There are literally hundreds of software companies labeling themselves as selling portal software. Although market share numbers for this market are scarce, analysts like Forrester Research’s Nathaniel Root believe the larger Web application-server software companies (e.g., IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, BEA Systems, and Sun) will dominate the portal market in the future. While smaller companies like Plumtree, Epicentric, and Hummingbird have had good initial success, with more than 300 customers, the bigger companies can sell into their much larger base of customers.
Consolidation and aggressive pricing has already begun in the market. Oracle, for example, bundles in portal software as part of the Oracle 9i application-server software it sells. There are reports of software selling at deep discounts from large software firms anxious to preserve their customer relationships.
So the lesson here is that you can probably cut a good deal with a strategic vendor, or borrow a portal direction that your organization already supports, and be headed in a direction that will be good for many years.
Chris Alvord, CBCP, ACP, is founder and CEO of COOP Consulting LLC (www.coop-consulting.com), a consulting, training, and software services company in Reston, Va., serving continuity planning needs of clients.
Joe Fuqua is director of the Center for Advanced Technologies at AMS, Inc. (www.ams.com), a billion dollar, multi-national consultancy based in Fairfax, Va., with 49 offices worldwide.