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What would you do if your business experienced a disaster?

2002 saw me attending a meeting at one of Barclays Bank’s computer centres. The world had changed the previous year with the attack on the Twin Towers and the host of the meeting explained to me how he had visited the Twin Towers earlier in 2001. He also explained at the meeting the importance of contingence planning and that after 9/11 he had guided several American businesses on contingency and disaster planning. He went on to explain that the Twin Towers was occupied by hundreds of firms and of those occupants 70% of those businesses either had grossly inadequate or no contingency planning to enable business continuity. Indeed, according to a study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), only about half of the businesses in the World Trade Centre had a written contingency plan in place. Of those that did have a plan, many of them were not fully implemented or were not up-to-date.

There were a number of reasons why businesses may not have had a contingency plan in place. Some businesses may not have seen the need for a plan, as they considered the Twin Towers to be a safe and secure location. Others may not have had the resources to develop and implement a plan. And still others may have been unaware of the importance of having a plan.

The lack of contingency plans among businesses in the World Trade Center contributed to the high number of casualties on 9/11. Many businesses were unable to evacuate their employees quickly and safely, and some employees were not even aware of the evacuation procedures.

Here are some examples of businesses that had contingency plans in place and were able to resume operations quickly after the 9/11 attacks:

  • American Express: The company had a backup site in New Jersey that it was able to use to continue operations.

  • Morgan Stanley: The company had a plan to evacuate its employees from the World Trade Center and to relocate them to other offices.

  • Cantor Fitzgerald: The company had a plan to distribute its employees to other offices in the event of an emergency.

I have to say that working for Barclays Bank I was amazed at the number of businesses without contingency plans as from the late 1980’s the Bank had always had contingency plans and emergency capacities that were constantly updated and by the late 1990’s all Branch staff had to review their plans every six months.

In some cases a great deal of time and resources were spent on planning for disasters that may never happen with the Millenium Bug being the most notorious.

The wake of the 9/11 attacks saw a greater focus on contingency planning among businesses. Most businesses now have written plans in place, and they are regularly reviewed and updated. However, many small and medium businesses still have nothing.

If you “Google” you will find some of the things that a business contingency plan should include:

  • Identification of potential risks

  • Procedures for responding to each risk

  • Communication plan

  • Backup facilities

  • Disaster recovery plan

  • Training for employees

By having a well-thought-out contingency plan in place, all businesses can help to mitigate the impact of a disaster and protect their employees and assets.

Most importantly of all you should have a mind to the people in your business as key people, whether the owner/manager or a key employee are often the largest common risk to business continuity.

However, I do feel that there is a danger with plans in that you only plan for popularly identified risks. As the Yiddish saying goes, “God laughs at your plans.” Rather than just focusing on risk you should focus on what capacities and resources you can draw on or enable when disaster strikes.

If you have difficulty identifying the resources you require look at everything within the business and ask the question, "How long can my business operate without this?"

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