In a previous post I talked about the importance of business continuity planning (BCP) for any organisation. In this article I would like to go one step further and look at specific actions that an organisation can take to ensure they have a suitably enabled flexible workforce that can be prepared to respond to any event.
That event could be a negative one such as an unforeseen office closure due to a natural disaster but it could also be something uncertain or even very positive. It might be a time of uncertainty for an organisation due to a takeover or merger, or a challenging time in a positive way due to unexpected early win of a major contract. All of these situations could put strain on an organisation and hence it makes sense to have continuity plans in place.
Business continuity planning extends beyond the topics covered in this article - any continuity plan needs to cover a multitude of areas including communications networks, back-office processing, data back up etc. But there is one thing that underpins all aspects of BCP and that is effective, reliable and readily available communications.
When a disruptive event happens the most crucial factor is having working communication lines. None of your other plans can be executed without someone providing clear direction. An effective suite of communication and collaboration tools will enable employees to defy distance and disregard the limitations of geography. They may need access to specialist resources or system experts who are located in different regions, or maybe have to have a flexible workforce due to seasonality requirements or market drivers. All of these needs come back to needing simple and effective communications in a challenging situation that maximise the knowledge base in an organisation.
Here are some areas to consider when looking at the communications element of a continuity plan:
1) Have a unified communications (UC) strategy
Ensuring that employees have mobile phones so that they can communicate if your VoIP solution goes down does not count as a strategy! Effective collaboration goes beyond simply having access to voice communications with a mobile phone. Having a wide ranging unified communications & collaboration implementation across the organisation will enable everyone to communicate in real time, synchronously and asynchronously. VoIP solutions, Video conferencing, instant messaging & presence are all essential elements of a UC strategy. Solutions such as Microsoft Lync can deliver many aspects of this, as can a combination such as Microsoft Lync at the desktop and Polycom solutions in the conference room and on smart devices. New delivery models such as Polycom RealPresence One subscriptions make it much easier for an organisation to implement a UC strategy and not have to commit large amounts of capital investment upfront.
Whatever solution combination your organisation chooses for UC, it is important to ensure that all elements can connect together - focusing on solutions built on open standards will help ensure this and enable effective employee communications.
2) Extend your communications and collaboration beyond your network
Once your UC strategy is in place and elements of it are being implemented, focus on training your employees to make maximum use of it. This means helping them appreciate how it can be used from any location whenever they require it. With the appropriate infrastructure in place as part of the UC deployment, users will be able to connect and collaborate from home, whilst on the road, from a Wi-Fi hotspot; in fact any where that a network connection can be obtained. In addition if the UC solution includes web connectivity such as Polycom RealPresence CloudAXIS then collaboration can easily be extended beyond employees to partners, customers and suppliers as well. These types of web UC solutions basically turn joining real-time collaboration meeting into something as simple as clicking on a hyperlink.
3) User-driven meetings
Once you have all the elements of your UC solution in place then you can focus on taking IT out of the equation for day-to-day operations. There are multiple ways to enhance a UC solution by enabling end users to take control of the meeting process. This can touch every aspect of the meeting - from scheduling it, to joining it, recording it and reviewing it. Tight integration with Microsoft Outlook makes it easy for users to make any meeting a collaboration event instead of, or as well as, a face-to-face meeting.
Tools such as virtual meeting rooms (VMR) mean that each user can have their own personal meeting space with a dedicated access number that is available to them 24 x 7, instantly created on the UC infrastructure when the first user joins. This on-demand capability means the core infrastructure only needs to be sized for the maximum simultaneous number of users, yet all employees have the ability to host meetings when they need to. Joining the meeting then simply becomes a case of dialling the number of the VMR from any device on the company network - all users dial the same number. This simplicity, combined with the on-demand automated nature of meeting creation means that IT don’t have to be involved for every meeting. They can simply be involved for any issues or escalations, or to monitor important calls such as a CEO address. Other technologies, such as touch-tone conference controls means that the host of a meeting can also easily record the meeting for later review, or even have the meeting streamed live for others to watch on the web.
Making it easy for every user to have their own personal meeting space makes employees more likely to use collaboration as an everyday part of their workflow when they need to connect with people outside of the office.
4) Redundancy & Resiliency
Some organisations will want to create a resilient collaboration structure within their own network. This will likely comprise infrastructure spread across multiple data centres, with an N+1 approach to the core call control and conference bridging elements. The upside of this approach means that your organisation has 100% control of all the conferencing items and all the associated security that goes with that.
But not all organisations will either want to, or necessarily have the budget to create a fully redundant infrastructure. For these types of organisations it might make sense to look at a hosted cloud collaboration solution from a service provider. This cloud capability could be used as overflow for a companies existing in-house infrastructure, or simply as a back up capacity in the event that the internal infrastructure is not available. Having access to a cloud service as an alternative could pay dividends if there is a major unforeseen event that affects a company’s core network.
5) Create a culture of “face-to-face” collaboration - not “in person” meetings
The overriding objective for implementing the above elements of UC is to create a true collaboration culture. When you get your employees to the level of understanding that face-to-face doesn’t necessarily mean “in person” then you will have succeeded.
Encourage people to connect and collaborate using the UC technology
Ensure users have adequate training and feel comfortable using the tools provided
Start to implement some level of flexible working / teleworking as appropriate for functions where it makes sense
Look at how you can roll out collaboration beyond your organisation to make interactions with suppliers, partners and customers more productive
Once your employees get to grips with unified communications, and the flexibility and power it delivers to them they will never want to give it up. All of these activities will help create a flexible, productive workforce that is adaptable, comfortable with collaboration and familiar with the concept that work is an activity, not a location. They will have a culture of visual collaboration irrespective of location - all they will need to be effective is a network connection and a smart device or laptop. This level of flexibility and responsiveness is what will be the core underpinning of any business continuity plan.
So when that multi-million dollar contract comes in and employees head out to another country at a moment’s notice to help “make it happen” then the team won’t think twice about collaborating remotely over video irrespective of location and will continue to deliver maximum productivity.