Getting this documentation right could be your lifeline when disaster strikes.

“Ho Hum. Some pesky authority has asked us for our Business Continuity Plan. What a pain – can you string something together that will get them off our backs?”

Until 12.51 pm on Tuesday February 22nd, many Christchurch businesses might have said that. Not many would look at it that way now.

The tragic events of that day will go down in New Zealand’s history – not only for the horrific loss of life, but also for the effect on thousands of businesses, struggling to survive in the aftermath chaos.

A Plan can be the Difference between Survival and Failure

A comprehensive, well documented Business Continuity Plan can make the difference between survival and business failure. And although this earthquake is top of mind right now, you could also experience a tsunami, fire, volcanic eruption, pandemic, massive power or communications failure, terrorist attack or even a key staff member being run over by a bus. All these possibilities – and more - need to be considered in your plan.

It goes without saying that you need to ensure your insurances are up-to-date – that could be the subject of another full article. In the meantime, let’s concentrate on your Business Continuity Plan.

How Do You Get this Done?

So how can you get a good plan written, and still keep up with your day job?

The answer is to assign the job to someone, and let them stick to it till it’s done. Then, make sure that all the key people in your business understand what they have to do when the crap hits the fan.

Look on it as a critical business insurance investment. Without that in place, your business could be belly-up overnight or soon after. If you have someone within your business with the right skills and knowledge, who can take time out to write your plan in detail, that’s great. And if you think this is as important as we do, relieve them of their other duties until the job is done.

Alternatively, get an independent writing company to take on this task. If they have experience and good documentation skills, they’ll ask the right questions and get the nuts and bolts of your disaster recovery plan down so you’ll actually be able to use it.

What Goes into a Business Continuity Plan?

So what needs to go into a Disaster Recovery [aka Contingency/ Business Continuity] Plan? And how should you approach it? It’s probably not as simple as you think.

Start by listing all the business-critical areas of your company. These could include, for example:

  • Financial Management: Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Payroll.

  • Servicing Customers: Delivering your products or services to your customers

  • Communications: Contacting key personnel within the company, suppliers and customers. Phone and email links

  • Essential Services for your premises: power, phone, water, sanitary facilities

  • Warehousing and storage: keeping your stock and plant safe and accessible

  • Documents and Records: Preserving access to your company IP, important records, files, forms, etc.

  • Key People: Who could you not do without right now?

Are your Systems and Processes Documented?

Ask yourself, how much of the way your business runs is in the heads of a few individuals (including yourself)? Do you have documented systems and procedures that can transfer that knowledge if key people are down? That has to be the first step - not only for disaster recovery, but also to a strong, independently viable (and saleable) business overall.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Get someone to listen to how things are done in each area, map out the process, and write enough clear instructions so someone else can get to grips with what’s needed.

Make sure that someone who’s not familiar with the processes checks to see if what’s written makes sense. Here’s where using an external professional writing company, like Plan A, can help. Not only is the job done quickly without getting in the way of your day job, but you also get clear, independent advice. If they can’t understand it, nobody can!

Communication is the Key

When disaster strikes, you’ll need to communicate with key staff to organise cover for essential services until things return to normal. Cell phones – including text and email capability – may be your saviour in the short term. Remember to use them sparingly – recharging might be difficult.

Maybe you should have a back up phone or battery. And get some of those old-fashioned phones that work without power, for work and for home. Knew I should have kept some!

Contingency for Essential Services

How will you cope without power? If you make ice cream, then perhaps you need a generator at the ready. If your need is not quite so urgent, there are other options.

Solar cell phone chargers are relatively inexpensive and could be your saviour in a long-term power outage. You can even get solar chargers for computers, though these generally take a very long time and lots of sunshine to make a difference.

Keeping the Office running

Every business has administration needs. How easy would it be to set up a satellite office somewhere else? Do you have access to your company records and software online?

There are many options for backup plans, hosted servers and synchronicity tools available. If you don’t have this in place, now’s the time to organise it. A quick web search gives heaps of information about this: check out the blogs and have some discussions with local providers to work out the best solutions for you.

How will you continue to invoice clients, check your receivables, and pay your people on time, if your network is down? Make sure that you not only have back up for your data, but you have access to the right software to access it.

For payments requiring authorities, do you have back up if your key people are not available? Who else could hold a password and authority over your accounts?

Looking after your Customers

Keeping your doors open for business and looking after existing customers without essential services will depend on what your business does, and how vital your products or services are to your clients. If you hold significant stocks of your products, are they centralised or dispersed? While multiple locations for warehousing can be less efficient, this comes into its own when transportation is disrupted.

Consider how your business continuity needs could impact your optimal stocking levels. Some Christchurch companies have been able to maintain continuous supply despite production disruptions over the past month, by using up existing stock in storage. But storing finished product also has its price. Is covering continuous supply worth that holding cost for your inventory?

The Time to Act is Now

This article has touched on a few of the areas that should be covered in your Business Continuity Plan. To write a water-tight plan that works for you, it’s worth investing time and effort into covering the areas that will be your passport to survival if the worst happens.

It’s a cruel truth that some businesses can flourish on the back of disasters – they’re better prepared, quicker on their feet, or just luckier than their competitors. Sometimes, their ability to look after customers when others fail earns them ongoing contracts.

If you want your company to survive if there’s a disaster, your first step is to get your Business Continuity Plan written, and then make it understood by all your key people. If you can’t assign someone to it, get a professional in to help. But don’t delay – this may be the most important thing you do this year.

Good Luck!

Caroline Boot

MBA(Hons). BSc. MNZIM.

For more information, see www.plana.co.nz/tenders; contact info@plana.co.nz or phone 0800 PLAN AA (752 622).