I Was Part of Business Continuity Planning During 9/11. I Shudder To Think about What Corporate Planners Went Through During The Pandemic

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All of us plan for the future and put aside savings, in the form of property, gold, cash, and other such investments, just in case a personal or professional crisis strikes. Indeed, the popularity of financial institutions that extend loans against collateral like gold and houses, shows that preparing for unforeseen eventualities is ingrained in all of us. The same goes for corporates, at a larger scale and with much more precision and planning, as they have sophisticated Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) which let them “bounce back” after contingencies that disrupt their normal operations.

In my career, I have been part of planning and implementing several such BCPs, right from the aftermath of 9/11 to the periodic natural disasters, as well as to social unrest and sudden outbreaks of disorder. Indeed, I can say with confidence that corporates like to “stay on top of the game” and more so, in India, where the only certainty is uncertainty. This brings us to the nature of BCPs in the context of the pandemic caused by the Coronavirus, which perhaps is the first “real” crisis in the 21st Century, where no amount of advance planning and foresight could have neither prepared the corporate planners for what transpired nor could business leaders say for sure, where this would lead us next.

In other words, the pandemic is a “once in a century” event without parallel in the post Second World War world, and so, I seriously wonder if corporates have learned the “right” lessons, and more importantly, how prepared are they for what comes next. For instance, take the case of India, which went through a series of lockdowns at the Federal and State levels over the course of the last two and half years. These lockdowns were announced with little advance warning, leaving corporates “blindsided” as to what and when they ought to activate the BCPs. I am fortunate to have been in full-time careers in times when BCPs worked and my ex-colleagues and peers should enlighten me as to how BCPs were executed during the pandemic.

The crux of the matter is that when entire nations were locked down, there is no way corporates could “transition” from Onsite work to Remote Work in the “blink of an eye” (in the case of India, the first lockdown was announced with barely a few hours notice). More so, when the Digital Infrastructure in India is not as developed as in the West, meaning that WFH or Work From Home arrangements would have had to contend with power outages, disruption to internet services, breakdowns in equipment and other such interruptions to the “normal” workdays. Indeed, given that all these disturbances are things that Indians have long learned to live with, though not with WFH, I wonder how effective the BCPs would have been in such cases.

The other “big unknown” about the pandemic is that managers could never know who would be down with Covid and how long they would be “quarantined”. When the only thing “known is an unknown”, how would BCPs be implemented to ensure BAU or Business As Usual. As I mentioned earlier, I was part of BCPs in the aftermath of 911. However, at that time, it is a relatively “simple” (in hindsight) of getting people to work from a remote (literally and figuratively) location, rather than everyone working from home, and being at the mercy of virtual and phone-based interactions. I can tell you that this is a manager’s worst nightmare as team members in their homes, can neither stir out to work from the backup office nor congregate in a “safe” location as lockdowns impeded mobility.

Of course, I have heard that many Indian services firms sought “passes” from the authorities that ensured some or a critical mass of employees continued working in the main office. However, what would manufacturing and other sector firms do, as can be evidenced by the complete shutdown of MSMEs (Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises) which in some cases had “tragic” consequences such as the loss of both lives and livelihoods, what with migrant workers trekking back to their hometowns. Moreover, sudden WFH arrangements mean that employees have to immediately adjust to Work-Life Balance modes, which is especially difficult for anyone with kids and more so, for women professionals, though this applies to men as well.

Last, I am not debating whether the lockdowns were essential or they were unnecessary. Rather, the point of this post is about how much-advanced planning and foresight can corporate planners and BCP framers can do when no one really knows what comes next. In addition, longer-term planning is the first casualty as the threat of another variant disrupting everything is very real. As Indians return to Offices, I do want to know how and in what form BCPs are being formulated for the Next Big Disruption, whether another pandemic, war, or for that matter, the ever-present risk of societal unrest. To conclude, Business Continuity Planning in these times is indeed challenging and would test the best of the brightest corporate honchos.


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