02 June 2009

Continuity of Operations: Mother Nature or Active Shooter...

Continuity of Operations in the context of business gets on the Board of Directors agenda after every tragedy. Whenever the magnitude of the business disruption involves loss of life, or major property damage the executive management goes into "Crisis Management" mode. Unfortunately for many, this may be the only time the Board and corporate executives have tested or exercised for such an incident.

So what is Continuity of Operations? What does it mean to your business? How pervasive does this Operational Risk strategy have to be? Let's think about a simple process from the time a sales person picks up the phone to schedule an appointment to the time the product or service team has delivered or installed the items that have been sold to the customer.

In the context of university higher education, the process of recruiting, admissions, housing, fund-raising, sports and alumni relations. How many touch points, steps in the process or procedures for manufacturing, integration, sourcing, learning and implementation exist? Now think about your supply chain that provides the necessary resources, energy, infrastructure and people to make it all happen. Does this business issue seem like a trivial matter?

The aftermath of any major incident will require a thorough investigation to determine what happened. Everyone will have their version of what they saw, heard, felt and remember about it. Then the finger pointing, litigation and media frenzy begins. Only then do the Board of Directors and Executive Management wish they had practiced and exercised for the eventual day that has now landed on their front door step.

Such an example is in the news again, more than two years after the tragic day in April 2007 on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. In Lucinda Roy's latest book, "No Right To Remain Silent", her opinions magnify the need for effective continuity of operations planning, exercises, auditing and testing:

After tragedies like this, people clam up. They are warned that it is too dangerous to talk about the specifics of a case when lawyers are chomping at the bit, when the media is lying in wait like a lynch mob. But people also remain silent when they are worried that what they have to say could injure them somehow.

In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy at Virginia Tech I was reminded of how much silence has to say to us if we listen with care.

Sadly, the tragedy at Virginia Tech did not usher in an era of openness on the part of the administration. Questions that related to the specifics of the shootings, to Cho, or to troubled students in general were viewed in the wake of the tragedy as verbal grenades.

Many of you may remember where you were when you heard the news. Just like you will always remember where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001. Yet April 16, 2007 could very well be more significant as the analysis and the investigation continues.

Sadly, we know how this story turned out: On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot two people to death in a Virginia Tech dormitory, then chained the doors to a classroom building shut and methodically killed 30 more before committing suicide. It was the worst school shooting in American history.

Who knew what when? The litigation is ongoing and some still are seeking the truth. Proving the truth will require substantial analysis of tens of thousands of documents, e-mail messages, hand written notes, depositions, medical records and school work. Yet when it gets boiled down to the facts and the issues, "Continuity of Operations" protocols, practice and preparedness will be at the core of the matter.

Does your organization have facilities where an all hazards approach is talked about and is continuously aware of the threats to life and property along with the economic implications of any business disruption? If you have people and property in California the answer is yes. Earthquakes, brush fires and now even the lack of government resources are existing risk factors. If you have people and property in or near symbolic locations such as New York City's Wall Street, Washington, DC's Capitol, or the St. Louis Arch then your organization should have heightened situational awareness and crisis management mechanisms already in place. The whole State of Florida, North & South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and others who know the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are sensitized to the requirements for effective preparedness.

So what is the difference in an event such as the "Active Shooter" scenario on your campus or the catastrophe sent by "Mother Nature"? The answer is the accuracy in predicting the event itself. All the preparedness for either event starts with the mind set that it will happen. Only one can be prevented, preempted or neutralized before it can cause harm.

Sadly, the Report of the (Virginia Tech) Review Panel to the Governor, issued in August 2007, contained important inaccuracies, despite the panel’s best efforts to get to the truth. University officials, it now appears, may have been less than candid and forthright in their responses to the questions put to them by the panel.

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