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Covering the people side of a disaster recovery program

At Tulane University, an enterprise content management system was just one of many improvements to result from Hurricane Katrina. Here, learn must-haves for the people side.

For Tulane University, an enterprise content management system and move to paperless records was just one initiative to get closer attention as the school rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina. As the fourth anniversary of the disaster nears, we spoke with Tulane's director of administrative services, Michael Britt, on other aspects of the disaster recovery effort and the disaster recovery program now in place.

For this installment, we asked Britt about lessons learned on the people front; his resulting best practices follow.

Identify and have a plan to assemble decision makers in one place.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the university found its business officers had evacuated to locations all over the country.

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"Now we have the core administrative group evacuate to a predetermined destination. That gives us a huge head start," Britt said.

Tulane has two preselected sites (depending on hurricane direction), and the sites have changed during the last three years. They are selected for a variety of reasons including location, distance, university relationships, hotels, airport access, etc. The university shoulders a portion of the cost for the individuals and their immediate families, Britt said.

The core group is small. When Hurricane Gustav threatened last year, the group included the president of the university, the director of materials management, the provost, controller, registrar, three of the five senior vice presidents, Britt, part of the public relations team and at least one senior IT executive.

"We did not take all the technology support people, but the decision makers who own the partnerships that run a big institution," he said.

Meeting face to face tended to elicit information and solutions that wouldn't otherwise surface. "I might be able to do something with Xerox that the director of materials management can't do with his partners," Britt said. That leads to the second point:

Know your partners and keep them in the loop (or, next time you're itching to pick a fight with a key vendor, think twice).

"Disaster recovery is a partnership exercise. We learned from the Katrina experience that you can't do it by yourself," Britt said. "If you have totally lost equipment, is your hardware vendor in position to move your orders around on faith and experience? Or if you fight with your vendor, then call him in the disaster, is he going to demand a deposit because you might be going out of business, or is he going to step up to the plate and help you recover?"

I guess my warning would be, 'Don't forget the people.'
Michael Britt
director of administrative servicesTulane University
Make it a point to raise disaster recovery (DR) issues in advance. Tulane now exchanges hurricane strategy plans with several of its partners, Britt said. "It's not something that we can hold a vendor to, because a disaster is a very fluid situation. But, we have conversations: 'In case of this disaster that we face perhaps more than other people, what could we expect you to do? And what's your cell phone number, and do you have a nonbusiness email?'"

As a result of discussions with Tulane, the U.S. Postal Service, for example, now periodically sends out an updated contact system to the university and other major users in the New Orleans area. The Tulane contacts are responsible for vetting mail-forwarding requests from people at the university, which overwhelmed the post office in the wake of Katrina.

"In Katrina we had over 300 mail-forwarding requests," he said. "It created a mess for months." Every professor, of course, believed his mail was the most important and needed it forwarded to his particular address.

Perception is reality: Keep PR people in the loop.

Triaging recovery at a big institution is the job of a core group assembled in one room. And an informed communications team is critical for conveying what's decided.

"It helps with your employees and it helps with your customers," Britt said. "If the public and users have faith that you are going to recover, then the likelihood that you will recover is much better."

Remember that your people (and their PCs) are repositories of organizational knowledge.

A lot of an institution's knowledge base is sitting on individual machines accessed by individuals, he said. Figuring out how to maintain as much of that knowledge in the face of a disaster tends to get overlooked in a disaster recovery program.

"Backups and recovery and data centers in a trailer truck, we discuss. But a data center doesn't run without a couple of really knowledgeable database managers," Britt said. "You can have a great Oracle DB and if he doesn't know the institution, he is not going to be that valuable. I guess my warning would be, 'Don't forget the people.'"

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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