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Volume 30, Issue 3

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Where were you for the blackouts in August 2003? Were you one of the unfortunate 50 million people who found themselves without power for days? Was your business disrupted by the severe power failure, either directly or indirectly? If not, you were one of the lucky ones.

The power outages cost businesses throughout the Eastern United States and much of central Canada millions of dollars. Valuable business data was lost, employees were unable to perform their job functions and customers were unable to interact with these companies, whether they wanted to access their accounts, buy products, or make other transactions. On top of those disruptions, everyone felt fear or trepidation because no one knew for sure what caused the blackout or how long they would be without power. In a nutshell, this unplanned event wreaked havoc on thousands of businesses throughout two countries.

What this event brought to light, and what the 2004 hurricane season reaffirmed, was that businesses in general are unprepared for the unexpected, forcing executives to take a second look at their business continuity plans. One lesson learned was that for technology events such as blackouts, to other unplanned events including manmade events like security breaches, natural events like earthquakes and corrective actions like snow days, companies need effective communication methods in place to handle any type of event across the spectrum of urgency. One way to address this need is to consider implementing an automated notification solution.

Automated notifications enable organizations to deliver critical information quickly to a large number of people by leveraging scalable communications platforms that create personalized, interactive text and voice communications that are delivered to any wired or wireless device. While these notifications can contain information on any number of topics across the spectrum of urgency from planned events like billing to unplanned events like blackouts, automated notification solutions are vital in times of emergencies. By communicating rapidly during these times, organizations are able to control the information that is disseminated, setting the tone for resolution, and, in some cases, averting a crisis elsewhere.

Why Alerting Is Not Enough

In times of crisis, alerting people – that is, simply providing information on what is occurring – is not enough. While it may be effective for broadcast alarms, it is not an effective tool for managing and responding to all unplanned events because alerting makes it impossible to accurately assess the impact of the message. There is no way to ensure that everyone received the message, and no way of knowing how each recipient is processing and reacting to the information. The true value of automation comes from interactivity.

It is interactivity, or the ability to solicit a response through DTMF or voice, that differentiates an employee blast from a true employee roll call or accountability initiative. In this case, employees may indicate more than receipt, but safety or understanding of prescriptive next steps. The ability to interact with the notification also enables executives to collect critical data.

For example, in the case of an emergency, a hospital may initiate a triage alert, notifying personnel who are off-site that they are needed on site to tend to patients. A complete notification solution will allow the hospital to scale a list of employees, and once the quota is filled for additional staff, the system stops calling.

By providing company stakeholders the ability to remain informed and provide feedback, executives are able to not only maintain continuity of operations but also make each individual feel valued to the company. Executives realize that strong communication channels are critical in maintaining strong, positive relationships with stakeholders and automated notification solutions are an effective tool to meet this need.

“Automated notifications are more than just sending out information as alerts,” explains Angela Devlen, team leader of corporate disaster recovery planning at Partners Healthcare System, Inc. “Moving from a paging system to interactive messages that empower our employees to immediately respond to the communication has helped us get a much clearer picture of who is responding rather than blindly sending alerts, wondering who has received the message and who remains uninformed.”

Because message recipients can be confirmed, the result is more accurate success rates than with a non-interactive communications solution. While this dialogue is possible with a manual call tree, automated notifications can instantaneously reach out to an organization’s entire list of recipients, saving valuable time in message delivery.

Where to Begin

For executives like you who are serious about automated notification solutions for BC, there are some essential considerations to be taken into account when planning and implementing this type of solution. By making the right choices and taking the proper precautions, you can be confident that when unplanned events occur, the plans in place will drive effective and efficient resolution while maintaining business operations.

Every organization needs a BC plan in order to avoid or mitigate risks, maintain business operations in times of crises and address the increasing legal and ethical responsibilities that are increasing with emerging legislation since Sept. 11, 2001. An essential component of this planning is communication; communications processes are complex and, in emergencies, must be accurate and real-time. You, therefore, need to put in place a reliable way to communicate with partners, employees and customers, in an efficient, effective, timely manner. The one way to do this is to leverage an automated notification solution.

Top Management Considerations for Successful BC Communications

Know Your Company

You should know how their company works on a daily basis in order to determine how the notification solution will function. You need to identify who has authority to activate notifications, who the potential recipients of notifications are, what the various modes of notification are (landline, cell phone, pager, etc.), how often the company will notify recipients (tests, events), sources of data for recipient data and how the company will get that data, and what data the company needs to know about notified recipients (ETA, how are they contacted, etc.).

Additionally, you need to determine the policy for using this solution, define the frequency of automated notification as part of both communication drills and full-scale simulations and assign responsibility of these policies for the company. Because communication with stakeholders is crucial to any business, the executive team needs to be involved in this process.

Outsourcing vs. Home-Grown Solution: Economies of Scale

Identifying who needs to be contacted in emergencies is a first step in determining whether a home-grown solution is sufficient. As the list grows, the task of contacting and connecting with each person in a timely manner becomes more and more daunting – but you are ultimately responsible for ensuring that everyone necessary is contacted rapidly as an event unfolds.

If an organization uses a notification system infrequently, the cost of maintaining an in-house system may not make sense, as these systems need to be tested continuously to ensure that it is working as expected. By outsourcing this solution, companies can ensure the testing is ongoing, guaranteeing the system will work when it needs to and that the outsourcer has bandwidth to support the event.

Know Your Audience

You need to be aware of who they are talking to when they authorize the sending of these messages to employees, customers and partners. Different audiences may be reached more effectively by using specific devices.

“In the healthcare industry, for example, e-mail does not work for clinicians delivering medical care, pagers do not work for executives who do not carry them, for the 9-to-5 staff, it is difficult to get a 24/7 response,” explains Devlen. “When you are implementing this type of solution, you need to take into consideration the structure of your business and your employees’ and customers’ expectations.”

It’s Cyclical

You must always remember that plans should drive notifications and notifications should drive plans. Plans are put in place as a precautionary measure to ensure that BC is maintained throughout a foreseen and unforeseen event. When a BC plan must be implemented, the automated notifications are sent out to the appropriate recipients as laid out in the plan. The recipients interact with the message and provide feedback. After the event, an incident management report should be developed to highlight what worked and what did not work, who was not reached and why, as well as any additional lessons learned throughout the occurrence. These conclusions should then be funneled back into the overall plan in preparation for the next event.

As notifications are distributed, you should read the incident management reports in order to know what worked, what went wrong, and what should be updated. It is crucial that you and your team ensure these plans are updated on an ongoing basis and that you show an interest in business continuity practices. After all, it does affect your bottom line.

Test! Test! Test!

First, you need to assemble a team to manage all of the issues that arise as the testing takes place as well as the specific elements of the test including logging into a system, creating a notification, delivery to devices, report on success/failure, and a post mortem. Then, the team needs to create a testing schedule that is appropriate for the specific company needs and keep you and the rest of the executive team abreast of all plans and developments. You are then able to ensure that the investment is working as promised and that any issues are ironed out promptly.

Testing what you are planning is crucial. You could find, for example, that a number has since been disconnected and these things need to be updated in the plan. Testing helps to identify the outdated data, enabling the management and executive team to drive the changes back into the plan to ensure up-to-date data.

Message Delivery

A crucial consideration for all executives is how the message will be delivered. The message deliverer has a direct impact on how people respond to the incident. Recording a message in a human voice, for example, can sometimes be an important factor.

It is important to keep in mind that the way people respond to communication can change based on how they are presented information. If the deliverer of the message sounds panicked, the result will be more panic while, after a tragic accident, the receiver of the message would not want to hear that co-workers may be in danger from a computerized voice.

While the receiver needs to be alerted to the incident, the delivery of this type of message should not be impersonal as this could lead to additional grief and panic. If the same message is delivered with a human voice, the receiver will be more receptive to the reassuring, calm voice.

Additionally, the mode of contact will vary depending upon the individual receiving the message. Because automated notifications can be delivered via voice or text, constituents can choose from any number of communication devices including landlines, cell phones, pagers, e-mail, SMS and PDAs. This flexibility and customization ensures that individuals can be reached whether they are in the office, on the road, or at home.

When an unplanned event unfolds, real-time action and resolution are critical. With a communications-enabled BC plan in place, organizations are prepared for the unexpected. You can be confident that your business will continue to move forward. The next time a blackout strikes, can you afford to be unprepared?


Troy Winskowicz is the product and alliance manager for EnvoyWorldWide notification services for business continuity. Prior to this role, Winskowicz managed the application engineering and support departments, chartered with the implementation and satisfaction of more than 100 customers. Winskowicz has been with EnvoyWorldWide for more than four years and has more than 10 years experience managing and implementing information technology solutions.