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In recent years, we have seen the liberal use of the word “resilience” by business continuity professionals often resulting in the renaming of internal teams and roles, but has there been change in the actual work they undertake? How will their work be changed post COVID-19 and will this bring a shift in our focus towards resilience?

If we look at what happened after the financial crash of 2008, we have seen a shift in focus by regulators towards Operational Resilience and this has, perhaps, outlined a clearer direction of what “resilience” is. Today, this view of resilience is probably more advanced in its concept than within the business continuity profession itself.

The regulators placing emphasis on protecting consumers and avoiding wider market harm goes beyond the traditional business continuity thinking that we see in many organizations. To me this resonates a little with COVID-19, where we are dealing with the continuity of our businesses, but in a broader context that includes the protection of our employees, families, and helping our wider communities.

More than 10 years have passed since the global financial crisis that created a need to change focus. The changes have been slow. Our business continuity professional industry bodies have largely ignored this financial driver; and yet it should resonate with every business.  It is, after all, putting the services that our organizations offer front and centre and in a context of the wider community they serve. It seems to me that this naturally leads to a more top down approach to business continuity, understood more naturally and supported more easily by senior management, support that is often lacking in many organizations with regards to their business continuity programs.

This is not new. The industry has proclaimed the need to understand the organization in the context of the products and services it offers and yet this has proved a difficult concept for many who choose to understand their organization from an operational and functional perspective.

COVID-19 has the potential to change this rapidly, showing us the fragility of our ways of life – personally and in business – and therefore can be a driver for fresh thinking, elevating the need for business continuity and resilience in a much wider setting and with greater senior management support.

Changing the Way We Do (and Accept) Business

Business models that have led to globalization, a drive for supply chain efficiency, and work-site concentration have had weaknesses exposed by COVID;  seeing reduced overall resilience with impacts in other, far away countries affecting business at home. This has, I am certain, resulted in higher levels of impact affecting many.

Nevertheless, we are all in this together, so we tolerate the impact.

During the pandemic, we accept long queues, both physically and virtually, to buy what we need. We also accept lower service levels, but we are thankful for what we receive. We are accepting of mass redundancies, closing of businesses, restrictions on daily lives, healthcare delays, and other issues.

But if this happened to just one business, would this be acceptable?

Fortunately, digital transformation has enabled better, smarter, and more flexible ways of working, helping us cope during this pandemic: and I suspect that the situation would have been very much worse even 5 or 10 years ago without this transformation.

We do, though, face questions about what business continuity management has delivered in the context of COVID. I have heard conversations on whether a business continuity capability was of use, questioning the strategies designed around building loss, technology failure, etc and on fundamental program validity in the light of COVID.

We must not become clouded and binary in our responses and reactions just because of COVID. It is only one of the many possible scenarios of disruption that we face and, because of the global nature of the event, our impact tolerances have changed – albeit temporarily – impacting our accepted continuity requirements.

The old risks still exist, irrespective of COVID; and I am certain our expectations will rise as impact tolerance decreases. The questions are: will we return to a pre-COVID normal? And will our business continuity requirements change as a result?

Returning to the New Normal

I am sure that we have all had experiences following crisis management exercises, where the immediate interest, enthusiasm, and commitment to improve during and after an exercise dissipates quickly when participants go back to their day jobs.

Will this be similar for a return to normal after COVID? How will these last few months affect our employees and their performance moving forward? It’s important to remember a business is lost without its staff; and that employees are key assets. Will staff wellbeing become a bigger focus for businesses post-COVID-19?

Is there a risk that corporate complacency will set in as COVID-19 becomes a distant memory for some, as our leaders focus on re-building to a pre-COVID position and get back to business as usual? Will momentum for change wain?

A Shift in Focus

COVID is a learning opportunity and should make us examine the core of what we do.

Is business continuity just a way of flattening the impact curve to protect our businesses when resilience fails, much as distancing and restrictions flatten the impact of infection?

Does thinking of business continuity in this way change our approach and narrative? Does COVID-19 bring clarity to the differences between resilience and business continuity? How will it alter the risk landscape, given that a pandemic threat has not previously been high on government, business and people’s radars?

The pandemic may now make business and governments think more about national industries and local capability, reducing supplies and dependencies from abroad. It may also make organizations more fully adopt digitalization, revisit the spread and number of offices they have, and re-evaluate business continuity capabilities in support. COVID may create change in our underlying business models and make us question many of the principles and assumptions that have formed the basis of our work.

We need to be balanced. Changing course drastically based on COVID could be a knee-jerk reaction. If we are not careful, we can easily dismiss our past business continuity efforts as they may have not given us the comfort we expected.

Whilst COVID-19 may be the catalyst we need to look to a more resilience-based future, this will require investment: investment at a time where economies are hammered, revenues are tumbling, and continuing, let alone re-building, may be all some can afford. 

The Next Elephant in the Room

Against an already depressed background for business, economies will be saddled with high debt levels. How will this alter the outlook for the next five, 10, 20 years, after a slow recovery from a previous financial crisis? How can we build resilience without also accepting lower profits, higher costs, and higher taxes?

When we are no longer focused on pandemics, what other elephants will be in the room that we are ignoring from a personal, business, and international viewpoint?

Seeing the reported short-term reduction in carbon emissions globally in just two months, will this change our thinking on climate change risk which could drive change in business? What about solar flares that have the potential to knock out communications and power grids? What about the Internet and cloud services? They helped save us all during COVID-19, but what if...?

COVID will expose tactical and operational considerations, but it has the potential to shift mindsets on a more strategic level. It could foster new heights of international cooperation or result in high levels of nationalism, with both governments and businesses protecting their own at the expense of others.

COVID will facilitate conversation, raise doubts and difficult questions, challenge our thinking, change business models, and alter the way we set business objectives. 

The greatest risk, though, is complacency through not maintaining momentum and not using COVID as an opportunity to learn and change.

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Topics: Business Continuity| Pandemic Preparedness

Ian Crabb, Global Head of Strategy

Written by Ian Crabb, Global Head of Strategy

Ian Crabb is the Global Head of Strategy for ClearView and Assurance. During Ian's nearly 30 years of experience, in addition to providing independent continuity consulting and program management services to global clients, he has held both board and senior management roles within continuity service providers and operational responsibility for continuity within organizations; and brings a wealth of knowledge from these opposite viewpoints.

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