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As swine flu spreads, CIOs prepare business continuity plans, measures

Kristen Caretta, Associate Editor
As the swine flu virus (and hype of a swine flu pandemic) continues to spread, CIOs can, at a minimum, prepare for additional remote access capabilities should increased numbers of workers need to stay home, report CIOs with business continuity experience in Southern California. In addition, for those with no business continuity plans, it's not too late to craft communication and other policies to ensure that business continues uninterrupted should conditions deteriorate.

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But deciding what to broadcast to the workplace is another matter.

"We have to walk on a tightrope in regards to this," said Aaron Gerraughty, MIS director at Waxie Sanitary Supply. "Communicating business continuity plans for 'in case someone gets sick' -- that makes people nervous."

Located where the first U.S. H1N1, or swine flu, case was confirmed, and currently the county with the most cases in the state, the San Diego-based sanitary supply company is primarily concerned with prevention and communication. "We don't have any confirmed cases," Gerraughty said, "but at this point it could take five to 10 days for the symptoms to show, and we're really reinforcing good hygiene." Gerraughty's response has included updating the company website, at www.waxie.com, with swine flu facts for employees and customers.

Stuart Gross, IT director at Southern California Physicians Managed Care Services, is also not increasing internal communication regarding swine flu to avoid any extra anxiety among employees. But, as a precaution, Gross and his team are gearing up the capacity to work from home, in the event their organization is affected.

"We have some work-at-home employees and are expanding that capability using our existing VPN," Gross said. "We plan on having enough capacity for 75% of all employees to work from home."

Stephanie Balaouras, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said CIOs must check the limitations of the remote access technologies available in the organization to prevent what she described as a "gotcha situation" -- believing the business is more prepared than it really is.

"So many companies have remote access capabilities, but is there enough bandwidth to support all the employees from home?" Balaouras said. Be prepared to communicate to the major business units just how far the virtual private network can stretch, she advised.

According to Balaouras, having a workforce continuity strategy as part of a business continuity strategy and in addition to a disaster recovery strategy is an important investment across the business. Typical disaster recovery plans focus on major system failures.

"If the system is fine and the applications aren't down, but people can't get in to work, what do you do? Pandemics, transit strikes and other situations that prevent people from getting to work should be considered" in a workforce continuity plan, Balaouras said.

Although 68% of the 285 decision makers in a recent Forrester and Disaster Recovery Journal survey had a strategy for workforce recovery, those who don't can create one quickly and efficiently, Balaouras said.

First step: "Call a meeting with the company stakeholders and do a quick business impact analysis," Balaouras said. Determine what the most critical business processes are, what needs to stay up and running and how many people are necessary to support those functions.

If the system is fine and the applications aren't down, but people can't get in to work, what do you do?
Stephanie Balaouras
principal analystForrester Research Inc.
For example, within the seven-person IT department at Waxie, employees are cross-trained in all critical areas necessary for business continuity, so the department can keep running if some staff members couldn't make it in.

Once the business processes have been hashed out and prioritized, work with other departments like human resources to nail down policies that will govern what happens. Who will be directly responsible for crisis and emergency communication? How will the company handle sick leave? "As the enabler, the CIO can influence these decisions without taking on full responsibility," Balaouras said.

Determine how to communicate to suppliers, partners, customers and other employees by using what's already available. Update websites, prepare automated messages and utilize email for mass mailings.

And although the H1N1 flu is different from Southern California's usual suspect for necessitating business continuity plans (wildfires), Gerraughty still finds value in being prepared.

"We don't need an action plan for protecting our data with the flu," he said. "But it's all about serving the people."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Kristen Caretta, Associate Editor


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