Business continuity is exactly the right frame for a mild pandemic. Under conditions something like the 1957 or 1968 influenza pandemic, you can expect some impact on your supply chain and your absenteeism. It’s good business to plan to cope well with these problems so they don’t disrupt your business.
But a severe pandemic, anything like 1918 or worse, will disrupt your business. Period. Planning to prevent disruption is worse than useless; it’s likely to backfire. Even planning to minimize the disruption isn’t quite on target. The smartest companies (and government agencies), I think, are planning to manage the disruption. I mean that literally. They are planning how best to disrupt their own operations. In a sense, they’re planning how to work with the pandemic instead of struggling to work against it.
In other words, they’re developing triage plans. Wikipedia defines triage as “a system used by medical or emergency personnel to ration limited medical resources when the number of injured needing care exceeds the resources available.” You let minor problems go unaddressed. You let problems so severe you probably can’t solve them go unaddressed, too. You concentrate your effort where it will do the most good.
Think about nonmedical triage. It isn’t business continuity. It’s business discontinuity – planned discontinuity.
What normal functions of your organization are you planning to stop doing when it’s clear that you’re facing a severe pandemic? Have you compiled a list that distinguishes the dispensable tasks you’ll regretfully abandon for the duration from the core tasks you may need to ask people to risk dying in order to sustain?
Having such a list – that is, facing a possible severe pandemic with a discontinuity mindset instead of a continuity mindset – is central to pandemic preparedness. I think it’s almost a definition of taking preparedness seriously.
The risk communication aspect of all this is how you talk about your list. Some questions I am asking my clients:
- Have you shared your triage/discontinuity plans with your key customers? They need to know where you’re planning to let them down and where you’re planning to keep going no matter how tough it gets. You may even want to talk about amending some of your contracts to match.
- Have you asked your key suppliers what their triage/discontinuity plans are? Their plans, obviously, could have a huge impact on your plan. And if they haven’t got any such plans yet, you can do them – and yourself – a favor by insisting that they come up with some.
- Have you invited your customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders to help you with your triage/discontinuity planning? Transparency is a virtue in risk communication, but consultation and responsiveness are better yet.
Above all, in my judgment, have you talked about pandemic business discontinuity planning with your employees? Like all your stakeholders, employees need to know your plans, and would appreciate the chance to influence your plans. But there’s an even more fundamental reason for involving employees. Absenteeism during a pandemic is likely to be closely tied to business discontinuity planning.
This factor emerged clearly in several surveys I have seen that asked employees in various sectors to predict whether they’d show up for work under pandemic conditions. It emerged also in pandemic tabletop exercises, where nonmedical personnel often decide not to come to work because they haven’t imagined that they will be needed. In a December 2004 San Diego drill, even military officers and public officials “required convincing that they had crucial roles in what they initially thought was a purely medical exercise,” according to a published report on the drill.
Would I show up to do my normal job during a pandemic? Probably not; I’d stay home, stay away from others, and take care of my family. But if I had been cross-trained for a pandemic-related job, that’s another story. There’s a far better chance I’d take a deep breath and report to my emergency duty station.
Planning for business continuity, in other words, may worsen the discontinuity, because most employees won’t endanger themselves just to keep doing their routine jobs. Planning for discontinuity, on the other hand, significantly increases your chances of sustaining the core tasks you decided you simply must sustain no matter what. But discontinuity planning can’t help much unless employees are convinced beforehand that they will have a crucial, nonroutine role to play if and when a severe pandemic hits.
The psychology of precrisis communication makes convincing them a daunting task. Despite periodic accusations of resorting to scare tactics, government and the private sector are more typically united in their profound disinclination to frighten their publics. (The accusations of scare tactics actually contribute to this disinclination.) Emergency planners are characteristically much more willing to plan for a possible disaster than they are to talk about a possible disaster. They are even willing to plan what they’ll say if and when the disaster strikes – but don’t ask them to say anything now. I’ll address this nearly universal “fear of fear” in my next column.
Copyright © 2006 Regents of the University of Minnesota. Originally published on
the CIDRAP Business Source website, November 29, 2006. Reproduced with permission.