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White House report on Avian flu reinforces CIO concerns

A new government report on the Avian flu suggests catastrophic human losses and reinforces what CIOs have been saying for months -- this is beyond IT's control.

A new White House report released Wednesday suggests the possibility that as many as 40% of U.S. workers could be affected during an Avian flu pandemic.

The report reinforces worries that many CIOs have -- that IT is prepared, but the rest of the company (or the country) isn't. What good will an operable IT system do for a company that is without workers?

In fact, CIOs at a recent roundtable discussion held at a Las Vegas Forrester Research event said that while they're confident in their disaster recovery plans, they're not so sure about what will happen outside of IT. And there's some doubt that the government will be able to step up to the plate.

"If we were effective in planning it out, and I think we are, and if we get some practice in, I think we'll do well," said the CIO for the state of South Dakota, Otto Doll. "The challenge is, it's one thing to be sick. It's another if people die. No matter how prepared we are, what's going to happen outside of IT?"

Catastrophic staffing issues are something these CIOs don't believe many organizations are prepared to deal with.

"This is something that's been overlooked by most other organizations," said Steven Naylor, vice president, director of information technology services at FHLBank in Topeka, Kan. "The cross-training isn't as rigorous as it is in IT. We have to have backups for vacations, maternity leaves and sick days. In other groups, the work just mounts up until someone comes back."

This latest release from the White House is part two in a $7.1 billion strategy to fight the bird flu pandemic. The 240-page report lists some 300 items to follow in the event of an Avian flu outbreak, such as keeping workers as far away from one another as possible by giving them the ability to work from home. But government officials were quick to note that these are guidelines and that the government will not micromanage the process.

Experts say it's impossible to predict whether a pandemic will even occur, and if it does, how bad it will actually be. There is concern, however, that at some point, the strain of virus called H5NI could be spread from person to person.

Naylor, who responded today to the release of the report, said he was glad the initiative comes from the Department of Health and Human Services and not the Department of Homeland Security.

"Clearly, this is a health issue," he said.

"This is absolutely about 'is my family safe?' Of all the [disasters] we've prepared for before, none on them were as personal, none of them have been health-scare related," said Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

CIOs armed with even the best strategies know their plans will become meaningless if staffers are home sick or caring for family members.

"You make a large leap of faith to think they'll be doing their jobs instead of protecting the family," said Edward J. Simac, vice president and CIO, Export Development Canada in Ottawa. "What's expected of the employees and is it reasonable to have that expectation? Is the organization going to be critical of me for taking care of my family?"

Many CIOs said it's vital that IT make it possible for employees to work remotely in the event of an outbreak.

"State employees may not want to go to work, but if we give them the ability to work at home, they will," Doll said.

Bigger than Y2K

Dave Kamath, CIO at Idex Corp. in Northbrook, Ill., said it's important for IT executives to realize that an Avian flu outbreak will have far-reaching consequences outside of IT. If transportation is halted, banking systems are shut down, or emergency rooms are overflowing, it doesn't make any difference how good an IT plan is.

"What we're trying to communicate is that unlike Y2K, when companies relied on IT to fix the problem, this is nothing like what we were facing with Y2K," Kamath said. "There is no Y2K parallel to be made here."

CIOs are absolutely right to stress the immensity of the potential impact, said disaster planning analyst Marc Staimer of Beaverton, Ore.-based Dragon Slayer Technologies. One of many things in the White House report that Staimer takes issue with is that while the government is saying that 40% of U.S. workers could get sick, it doesn't mention the number of people who probably wouldn't show at work owing to fears of contamination.

You make a large leap of faith to think they'll be doing their jobs instead of protecting the family.

Edward J. Simac, CIO, Export Development Canada

From an IT perspective, how do you prepare for those possibilities? You could set up telecommuting or put more automation in place, Staimer said.

"But the reality is, [if there's a breakdown in transportation] people are going to get hungry … so my IT system is up, but people are out foraging for food."

Staimer recognizes what some IT executives are trying to do when they write Avian flu contingency plans, but he says, "They're just doing lip service, because ultimately, it's a people issue."

Analyst Diane McAdams of Wellesley, Mass.-based The Clipper Group Inc., says disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have taught IT professionals that we have to think about how to set up a communications network.

"I think it's a bigger human resource issue," she said. "You need the IT people to get the systems up and running, but you still need the other people who are running the show. It's beyond an IT issue."

South Dakota's Doll said, "IT can enable things to happen, but there are a lot of other pieces."

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