Business disruptions are a nuisance at the best of times. The spectre of a looming pandemic is a sure cause for concern for many. With the advent of the novel Coronavirus and the uncertainty it begets, now is a good time to reflect on your organization’s ability to withstand a crisis.
The cloud and artificial intelligence offer intriguing and unprecedented ways to prevent, manage, and respond to crises like the present spread of COVID-19, which grows daily in its reach and scope. It may be impossible to stop the virus, but there is much you can do to protect your business, and your workers, from its worst effects.
Prepare for business as usual, offsite
Being caught unprepared is the worst scenario when facing a crisis. Although the unfolding of COVID-19 can be distressing, it gives us the benefit of lead time and ample warning to ready ourselves.
Businesses should heed this five-step plan from Infotech Research Group to ensure their operations are as little affected as possible:
- Develop a crisis management plan. With a cross-departmental team as the backbone, brace for the worst as you consider your business response and staff communications plans. Take this measure rationally, and work to calm jittery employees. Panic is unhelpful.
- Plan to support remote work. Whether this means adopting new tools, or learning to work with existing ones, be proactive. The cloud makes location irrelevant.
- Have a solid business continuity plan. How would you subsist if you lost access to your building because someone on-site became infected? How do you keep core systems operating and a revenue stream open?
- Be ready to implement a disaster recovery plan. How will you continue to operate in case of a supply chain is disruption?
- Ensure that your network is robust. That is, be ready to switch to remote work, whether by VPN or cloud. Connectivity is key, as is location independence. Does your remote connection rely on systems in-house? Consider that a barred building may have its power cut, foiling your remote-work intentions.
Preparedness is the best defense against the unknown. Take this opportunity to ensure you have organizational continuity and recovery practices in place because, for many businesses, an unplanned interruption is existential.
Survival of the fittest
Surviving a crisis can be a make-or-break situation for many businesses. Failure to have a plan puts the odds out of your favour, risking a less-than-50% chance of survival. Could your business endure a cash flow shock from being unable to access your data? And if corporate cash flow dries up, what does that mean for workers? Forbes writes that 78% of Americans live paycheque to paycheque. Job losses could be devastating, with many struggling within weeks to pay the rent.
The cloud is a powerful ally in enabling you to continue operations. Tools like Office 365 enable collaboration from anywhere, with no virtual machines required. Indeed, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London has implored his team to work virtually, citing Microsoft Teams as a key tool. But the foresight to move before you have to is key.
The government will help
Maybe. Alas, this is not a given. While big data has a handle on everyone’s movements, and likely the patterns of spread behind COVID-19 (really, how often is your phone not at hand?), governments, and the medical industry, have been behind the eight-ball. Consider the CDC’s botched initial effort to dispense testing kits.
Big Tech could ostensibly inform forward planning. As with their targeted marketing programs, big data tracks populations and individuals, and can predict transmission and spread. Anonymized reporting could empower governments and medical agencies, and it is not clear why this does not occur.
Of course, there are reasons to be skeptical about big data dictating our actions, giving rise to those hard ethical questions which confounded the best philosophers. Is empirical data proof enough to justify an action? Is the freedom of one more important than the safety of many? Who should make these value judgments, and based on what criteria? While these questions may seem academic, their application will have very real consequences.
That said, Big Tech is taking pro-active measures against COVID-19, with Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon closing their key centres and asking people to work from home. (In a shout-out to decency, those organizations, along with Facebook, Twitter, and Google, have pledged to continue to pay hourly staff, even if the Coronavirus keeps them from coming in to work).
Provision of supplies in a pandemic
It seems that every place now has its iteration of the meme-worthy Vancouver toilet paper shortage. While that was likely an overreaction by many, the potential for supply chain interruption is real. It is not clear how shortages or delays will play out. However, it is certain that businesses will be re-thinking their approach to sourcing.
Large companies like Walmart are already experimenting with proactive, predictive supply chain management. An algorithm, informed by artificial intelligence, can identify trends and dispatch orders automatically. This is powerful, but has limitations.
In-country production may also become more attractive, whether through traditional manufacturing, or with the advent of 3D printing. The latter enables the mass production of all parts needed to produce a widget, rather than expecting just-in-time delivery from disparate locations across the planet. Today’s crisis may inspire companies to invest in the kinds of technologies that can mitigate future disruptions by scaling up production close to home.
What of the post-pandemic future?
It is likely that, regardless whether COVID-19 becomes part of the tapestry of common illnesses, or whether it rears its head and disappears, a new “normal” is likely. There is no turning back.
Businesses will gain a greater appreciation for solutions which allow their employees to continue working irrespective of location. While illnesses are not the only potential risk to business continuity, it is worth considering that increasing antibiotic resistance, and the untold effects of climate change, could make the rise of exotic illnesses more of a constant.
Organizational and personal readiness is key. Have a plan in place, and be sure your staff understands clearly how to dispatch it. In the meantime, wash your hands correctly and frequently, keep your mitts off your face, and find new ways to greet people: jazz hands, fist bump, Vulcan salute, a small bow.
Create a new culture in your office, one that fosters innovation alongside preparedness and responsiveness. As COVID-19 spreads and the spectre of illness and mortality appears to be upon us, it is worth remembering what is important: living well, fully, honestly, and with some levity.
Oh, and make sure you have a plan.