Last Friday I appeared on Channel News Asia’s ‘Singapore Tonight’ business news show. The subject of my discussion with the host was how businesses can ensure continuity of operations, particularly in the event of “the haze” returning this year. The advantages of collaboration technology that I raised are applicable to any situation where business continuity is necessary.
Singapore is sometimes affected by smoke haze due to agricultural burning in neighbouring countries. With the National Environment Agency predicting that this year's summer haze could be as bad or even worse than last year (2013 was the worst on record so far), business leaders need to start thinking about how to ensure their organisations continue to operate in such conditions. Last year the Government issued a number of health advisories as the haze hit its peak, which recommended limited outdoor exposure, even for a healthy individual. This led to some organisations having to close their offices for a few days, with the expected knock-on effect of reduced productivity.
The key to continued operations for a business in such circumstances is business continuity planning (BCP). This should not be confused with a disaster recovery (DR) plan. A DR plan focuses on how to resume business after a specific disruptive event. BCP is a much more comprehensive approach that looks at how an organisation can be flexible and cope with any unexpected event. All organisations, large or small should take an extensive look at their business operations and plan for how to deal with issues outside of their control. For many organisations in Singapore the absence of natural disaster threats has meant that BCP is often not considered, or only given the briefest of attention. However the events that a business needs to plan for are not just earthquakes or typhoons. As well as planning for the arrival of the haze, businesses could be affected by virus outbreaks such as Swine Flu or H1N1. Also as the economy continues to be ever more global, organisations can be affected by factors outside of their country such as volcanic eruptions with their associated ash cloud. Also we shouldn’t forget that BCP is not just about planning for the negative events and challenges that might occur. BCP also helps ensure an organisation can adapt when faced with a positive challenge such as unexpectedly winning a large contract that wasn’t planned for.
A critical aspect of BCP is deciding how employees will continue to communicate and collaborate when responding to an unforeseen event. If they cannot travel to the office, how will they continue to operate if having to work at home? If your business needs to send people abroad at short notice to respond to a customer situation, how will you ensure that decisions are taken quickly, with all the relevant information being available? BCP should consider the long term and solutions put in place should not only be for short term gain. Having said that, companies can of course put in place short-gap solutions for an impending event such as the haze, but they will have to look at expanding that for future occurrences of disruptive events.
There are many technologies that can play an important role in BCP. Having business applications delivered through a SaaS (Software as a Service) model makes it much easier for employees to operate from any location, providing they have suitable internet access. However organisations using SaaS providers should also take time to ensure they understand the service level agreements and associated continuity planning from those providers. After all, it is quite possible that they may also be affected by the very events you are planning for too. My advice to any organisation looking at BCP, and particularly if they need to do something now in advance of the haze arriving in Singapore, is to make your communications framework a top priority. An effective video collaboration solution ensures that employees can connect and communicate, have access to expert information and still receive management direction and guidance - all when they need it most, dealing with an unexpected event.
In addition, video collaboration can add additional value when the unexpected event is a natural disaster and employee welfare is a key factor that needs to be considered. We experienced this ourselves within Polycom after the tragic events of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Employee welfare was the management team’s first priority, and video collaboration ensured the local team received the appropriate support and reassurance as well as being an effective tool for the subsequent business planning that was required.
Of course within Polycom we were fortunate to have the complete range of collaboration tools available to us from our portfolio, but similar results are easily achieved by any business, large or small. My primary recommendation for any organisation would be to pick simple, highly interoperable standards based software - such as Polycom RealPresence Mobile and RealPresence Desktop. These software solutions make it easy to deploy video collaboration on just about any laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet. The mobile solutions can be downloaded free from the relevant application stores and provide a baseline of collaboration functionality. These solutions and the desktop solutions can be fully enabled with all the relevant business collaboration features such as content sharing, encryption etc. for a modest per-user fee. When you consider that statistics show that 80% of SMEs hit by a disruptive event close within 18 months this seems like a small investment to make to ensure your business continues to operate.
In some countries the relevant government organisations have already identified how important continuity planning is and have taken proactive steps to ensure workers can connect and collaborate from anywhere. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security (MOPAS) for the South Korean Government is a great example of where BCP has been considered on a large scale, and is going beyond just preparing for unforeseen events. With a key mandate to support the Korean Government’s ‘Smart Work Vitalisation Strategy’ the aim is to build 50 public SmartWork centres specifically for government officers’ use and 450 private SmartWork centres designed for wider enterprise use, all equipped with high- definition video collaboration solutions by 2015. This will allow 30% of government officers to work remotely, any time, from any place - enabling quick information sharing and rapid response communications, thereby ensuring business continuity as well as reducing commuter downtime and cost.
In summary, organisations need to start planning now for business continuity if they don’t have a BCP plan in place already. Key to any BCP is video collaboration, as these solutions allow employees to defy distance and disregard the limitations of geography. It also enables access to experts when they are needed most, during crisis situations. In a sense, video solutions act as the platform that supports all other business continuity plans.
Nick Hawkins is Senior Director, Advanced Technology, Polycom Asia Pacific.