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Respond and Learn: COVID-19 Disruption Provides Opportunities to Improve Operational Resilience

Douglas Wilbert, Managing Director Risk and Compliance
Matthew Watson, Managing Director Technology Strategy

Companies have talked for years about operational disruption and business continuity management (BCM), but few have contemplated an event like the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses today find themselves facing an “extreme but plausible” event that previously could only be considered in theory.

Protiviti has been monitoring the pandemic response of companies around the globe. We held a webinar last week to start a conversation with companies dealing with this business disruption, understand their challenges and share some practices to help businesses respond, recover and re-emerge from this crisis with confidence and increased resilience.

Uncharted Territory

Every business outage tends to have its own unique signature — things that break, things that keep working, and timeframe to recovery. Most disruptive events, at least up to the current global pandemic, have been limited in geography and have not tested every aspect of business continuity, such as the need/ability to work remotely over an extended period of time.

This current pandemic punches all the panic buttons: fear of the unknown, supply chain stress, workforce loss or isolation, drop in market demand for goods and services as 70% of the world population is sheltering in place. There are technology challenges companies may never have faced before, such as needing to quickly secure the working environment of a remote workforce, set up virtual private networks (VPNs), and rely on the availability and bandwidth of residential networks.

The objective, for most companies, is to adapt to these real-time challenges, re-establish some semblance of operational normalcy — ensure teams and supply chains are operational — and get back to serving customers as soon as possible.

Key Challenges

During the webinar, we asked attendees to pick their biggest operational challenges in responding to the current crisis. The biggest concern, outweighing the others by a factor of two, was addressing the needs of the workforce — both from a personal safety and productivity perspective — before the company can begin to consider customer concerns.

People and safety — People are a company’s most important asset. In this particular crisis, progressive organizations have acted quickly to make remote work arrangements, curtail travel, open lines of communication and address the emotional needs of employees who might reasonably feel isolated and worried — not only about their health, but also about cash flow and how they are going to be able to perform their job and feed themselves and their families. For this, clarity of direction and a strong and caring tone at the top are critical.

Read more: The People Side of COVID-19

Productivity and continuity – A good BCM program identifies critical processes, potential points of failure, the business impact of those failures and the maximum tolerable downtime for these critical processes. The BCM program should specify what critical tasks need to be completed and who is responsible for completing them. It identifies key applications, key personnel and key vendors and includes contingencies in the event that any of those key elements become incapacitated.

Looking Ahead

Operational resilience is not a new conversation, but present circumstances offer companies an unprecedented learning opportunity. Forward-thinking companies are not only going through the motions of moving the business forward — keeping the lights on and keeping people employed — but also keeping track of what works and what doesn’t.

As soon as restrictions are lifted and companies begin to return to business as usual, companies need to be sure to take the time to reflect on the lessons learned and to codify those lessons in an “after action” report so they don’t lose this unique opportunity for improvement.

Now is the time to document lessons learned, and to think about how those lessons can be applied more broadly to other disruptions — in supply chains, IT, etc. — so that failures don’t repeat themselves in the future. This should also be a time of sharing and discovery. Business leaders should reach out to peers and industry groups for real-time learning. There may be some things that others did or experienced that could produce valuable shared knowledge.

Today’s learnings will become the basis for tomorrow’s best practices.

For more of this discussion, including the webinar Q&A session, listen to the free on-demand version of our webinar.

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