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Lessons from a lockdown: Why business continuity needs to be a part of company culture

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Prasad Ramakrishnan, CIO, Freshworks

Perhaps in a few months, this will all be behind us. The lockdowns would be lifted and the streets would be buzzing again as nations and people adjust to a new normal. For business organizations, though, it would be a good time to begin prepping for the next contingency.

As country after country enforced curfews to contain the new coronavirus, companies activated business continuity processes that were designed for situations triggered by war or natural disasters.

Over the past three decades, I have seen various emergencies including floods in Chennai and tech meltdown in California. While such natural and economic disasters bring huge business and human losses and strain networks and infrastructure, their impact is typically local and short-lived.

The COVID-19 pandemic, on the other hand, is disrupting both the lives and livelihood of people worldwide. It has forced companies to embrace a remote work culture that, even if temporary, will challenge established business practices. We could see accelerated adoption of cloud-based infrastructure, lower reliance on on-premise software, and greater use of mobile devices by distributed workforces.

In the immediate post-coronavirus era, CIOs should assess how their organizations performed during the crisis. Did they have to scramble to establish secure environments for thousands of employees working remotely? Were their employees trained on using remote collaborations tools? Were C-suite executives--the decision-makers--prepared for a long BCP haul?

Based on these key learnings, CIOs should plan now for a stronger business continuity process that would make their companies more resilient, flexible and agile in the future.

Importantly, CIOs must involve key stakeholders across the organization. Requisite conversations

with the rest of the management team must begin on how the organization can institutionalize key BCP aspects into their regular business operations.

For one, business continuity planning cannot be just the IT team’s responsibility. It has to be an enterprise-wide responsibility. All employees need to be aware of and prepared for their company’s plans for emergency situations.

A company may have access to the best tools, but if its employees are not familiar with how to use those tools, if the company doesn’t weave together a training plan around its people, processes, and tools, its BCP is unlikely to be very effective.

Also consider this: Does your company have all its leadership, all of its computing resources, and all of the other things that it needs to operate its business in one location? How can you plan to be geographically spread out?

I have been binge-watching Designated Survivor recently and it resonated with me very well. A lower level politician, Tom Kirkman, is identified as a potential replacement for the US President in the event of a disaster. He is sheltered in a bunker during the State of the Union address. And when an explosion wipes out the entire chain of government, Kirkman steps up to take over as President. That’s the way you need to view your BCP.

CIOs need to help their companies identify the people, tools and processes needed to keep the business running in BCP mode. In an ideal scenario, the failsafe (people, tools, backup infrastructure) should be equipped and ready to continue business operations without much disturbance.

Companies also need to identify mission-critical apps and services—enterprise resource planning system, product development apps, customer relationship management tools, etc.—and prioritize IT resources to keep these up and running in BCP mode.

Another crucial aspect is communication. In emergency situations triggering BCP, companies that fail are the companies that don’t communicate. In BCP mode, companies need to over-communicate to employees, customers and all other stakeholders on their business operations, on what’s going on. But the last thing you want to be doing in the middle of a crisis is drafting emails. Having communication templates handy will enable you to respond quickly in BCP situations. Microsites and blogs can also be used to post quick updates and new information.

And finally, include disaster planning drills in your company’s business continuity planning. These are tabletop exercises to build muscle memory in the minds of employees, including senior management. At Freshworks, even before the coronavirus situation escalated, our senior-most executives participated in these exercises in preparation for a possible lockdown. We focused on critical aspects to keep our operations running for all our stakeholders, including employees, customers, vendors, partners and investors.

Disaster preparedness and planning should be a continuous process rather than episodic (when you are staring at a crisis). Simulate disaster scenarios for at least key employees who would be required to play a role in BCP situations. Assess their preparedness. Do it again. And then do it again.

The much-touted phrase applies “We’re in this together.”

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