When COVID-19 struck where were Australia’s business continuity plans?

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Can someone please explain to me why we’re missing so many business continuity plans in Australia?

If you’re not familiar with the term, business continuity plans are meant to help with disasters, disruptions to business and infrastructure failure. You activate them if something goes wrong.

The most recognisable versions of business continuity plans are social media disaster plans, or the contignency plans used by large-scale events management teams. The aim is to have everything written down and a plan to activate in the event of a disaster.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Defining disaster can be everything from disruptions to supply chains to terrorist attacks. It might be communications plans that deal with overbooking issues, websites falling over or what to do if a product fails. You use them in events to plan a contingency in case of foul weather, changes to suppliers or last-minute issues. And of course you have social media disasters like when the boss gets drunk and makes a bunch of flavoursome comments, if the tide turns against your company or when you put something out online and it gets newsjacked by a story that creates issues.

The idea is to have a plan you can activate. And have the accompanying messaging, delegation of tasks and mitigation of risk mapped out and at the ready.

If businesses large and small are using them, if they are the mainstay of events, and they are almost natively built into every new piece of software or website testing process by companies delivering large scale solutions, why is Australia suffering as much as it is right now?

Australia, where the bloody hell are ya business continuity plans? Let’s look at your missed opportunities for contingency plans and making this functional

Reading the research

Knowing the lay of the land is vital to good planning.

Good business continuity plans rely on the following aspects:

  • Solid research
  • Knowing that research
  • Applying that research to practical solutions

I have to ask: Why didn’t someone check with the Australian Bureau of Statistics and recognise that the volume of hospitality and arts workers together with Australia’s casual workforce would lead to Centrelink having a service meltdown?

Virtually and physically, Services Australia has been inundated. Where were the contingency plans needed to ensure people didn’t line up?

But any geek worth their salt knows this would be the case because we have the data on these sectors freely available through the ABS.

Asking people to line up for welfare after the website crashed missed the enormity of the situation. It also sends a message that undermines the stay away from each other and stay at home directives. Not to mention puts people at risk by exposing them to the shame attached to being unemployed for a lot of people for the first time in their life.

What could have been done?

  1. Use a staged approach. If the government is using incremental closures, which they appear to be doing, they should have managed the sectors better. Run it like a launch for a product like Facebook. Start with the smallest group you’ve got and adapt the software to scale
  2. Build something better. Hindsight is always 20/20, especially in 2020. But the government knew the issues they may face through a similar event in the Census issues in 2016. Why didn’t they learn from the practical application of their research then to build something that could cope now?
  3. Build better launch plans. You can still do an incremental roll out of something, even if it isn’t the sectors. If you have to slim down a digital load or an endless line of people to an overwhelmed system, use what you have to cue people. Segment them by last name from A to D, E to J and so on down the line if it helps
  4. Make better use of the information you have. Use the data you have via the ATO to text people a preliminary sign up form. Crossmatch what you have. I find it hard to believe a government that collects meta data from all of our online activity doesn’t know how to get MyGov, the ATO and any other system to talk to each other better
  5. Institute better policy. My health insurer knows they will get a bunch of calls from customers about the proposed April rate rise, so they have suspended it. My bank understood that people would clog up the lines with distress calls, so they waited a few days and then announced it was all online. If private companies can see this coming, why not the government?
  6. Own the mistake. When people started cueing for unemployment, we were all concerned. I mentioned to a friend that the story about a denial of service attack was plausible. She said it was remote and smacked of the lack of ownership over the Census issue. Turns out she was right. We can’t believe in structures if they lie to us and treat us like dummies. It’s much better to own up to problems in the first instance.

 

Changing the attitudes to technology

It comes as no surprise that Australia was in a mad scramble to get telehealth and tele mental health up and running. While the services have been pushed for and even existed in various forms for at least five years or more, they are not promoted. In fact, some people say they have been actively discouraged. They certainly haven’t been enabled before now to their full extent and it cost us time.

The same goes for the school system. The holidays are early so the systems can be implemented for public education.

On an emotional level, honesty and clarity would have helped parents enormously. This could have been enabled via dedicated messaging systems and alerts. Instead, parents were made to languish for days and anguish over whether or not to send their children to schools. Explain that you need nurses at work, and they need to put their kids somewhere. People understand that.

What they don’t understand is “schools stay open but make your own decisions.”

Not when it comes to their children.  Not when it comes to their own “how do I look after the kids and go to work at the same time?” contingency plans.

Our attitude towards technology in this country leaves a lot to be desired. The Australian Public Service isn’t online because (rumour has it), they’re not sure how to do it. Zoom has become a multi-billion company.

I am hearing from freelancers and direct employers with the tiniest bit of understanding they are stepping into IT roles and mobilising entire workforces because no one knew what to do.

Remote work has always been seen as a fad or something you shouldn’t attempt because you can’t control your workforce. Yet we will come out of this knowing it is both practical and useful.

Oh, coronavirus and the NBN? Jinkies. Yes, many countries have had to ask the streaming services to factor their content to cope with an increase in usage.

But we know Auistralia’s NBN has been a craptastic internet system glued together by denialism and hubris. It doesn’t compete on the world stage and it is likely letting people down, adding to already strained circumstances.

The fact that none of these situations had business continuity plans regarding the internet usage to fall back on is staggering.

Seriously- under a conservative government with concerns about terrorism (at least every election), why did nobody think about the moment where we may all need to jump online? We may not have seen COVID-19 coming (shhh SARS scientists! Put that Zika leaflet down, Doctor!), but surely the digital vulnerability is assessed when these major projects get rolled out?

And if not, why not?  Why aren’t we recognising that with each layer of technology comes the potential for disconnection? We need business continuity plans that cover that. We need contingency plans that are reviewed at a minimum annually to spot any issues.

If it comes from the private sector, so be it

The supermarket crash bemuses me. How can two giants in logistics and warehousing with online shopping end up having to order people in-store to get toilet paper?

Isn’t their website a giant end point delivery system?

Here’s the thing- if you have properly setup inventory website, you should be able to:

  • Inventory your stock
  • Cap limits on products
  • Identify duplicate orders and/or orders being delivered to the same address
  • Mitigate abuse of the system re: delivery fees
  • Deliver it to people with tracking

Again, this is a normal, everyday function of warehousing and fulfilment. Beyond people that seriously cannot work out how to use technology to save themselves, there is no reason we should not be able to order groceries online.

And the business continuity plans should be able to be activated to stop the hoarding.

I worked for a company that fulfilled print assets at retail store level for four years. It was not unheard of for our team to fulfill orders of major displays and promotional campaigns to 2000 stores nationally while also hand delivering printed invites to a private house’s mailbox in the same week. That’s with one person running point and another three people (if we were lucky) doing that. Most of the time, it was good old me.

Delivering food to the entire country is a much larger scale. But a national inventory with seasoned experience in logistics and warehousing should be able to tweak their system to make online ordering their primary focus.

If it was money, can you honestly say the major supermarkets couldn’t have found the budget to pivot? That the government couldn’t have found funding to help them do just that? Surely there is are contingency plans within each of these large beasts to maintain supply that could have been adapted?

When you have a situation where inventory is being ripped out from underneath you, the better place to have it is online. Because you can spot abuse quickly and effectively.

Consider the arguments for cancelling online shopping as though you were writing the business continuity plans for a major supermarket:

  • Spotting hoarder families. Multiple orders from different email accounts to the same address are easier to spot than the entire Jones family lining up for loo paper. It’s also easier to cancel the orders if you catch it too late
  • Delivery fee evasion. The alleged abuse of the systems of people trying to overload their orders to skip the delivery fees can be fixed by removing said fee. The sheer volume of orders will pay for that anyway
  • Forcing online customers in-store. Regular customers have a pattern of ordering and spending that is established. Any major changes to their pattern of behaviour can be easily flagged in the system for investigation and management. If I always order 6 tinned tomatoes every fortnight, that’s what I eat. If it’s 16 all of a sudden or goes from zero to 60, that is a trend you can spot using data. And you can give me the usual 6 tins and cancel the order on the rest
  • Frontline customer service safety. The abuse by customers directed towards staff and other customers can be reduced by less exposure, better deterrent through knowing the people’s names and addresses (it’s always easier to be an arsehole when you assume no one knows who you are, after all), and greater certainty of delivery
  • Feast or famine supply. The gaps in supply chains can be managed appropriately. Instead of people showing up in the vain hope of some chickpeas and toilet paper, they can pre-order it and have it delivered once stocks are replenished

If you have an online system that gathering all your stock movements, has delivery in-built, cross-tags customer information and can read people’s orders to ensure they are spending on their usual patterns, why not use it?

I’m not suggesting anything I haven’t seen work previously with customer relationship management systems or warehousing and logistics inventories.

The only thing I can think is that we simply shut everything down the minute we get a problem. And that we’re vulnerable to problems because we lack the wherewithal to use business continuity plans and contingency planning as it’s meant to be.

Or we’re so caught up in bureaucracy that if it doesn’t come from government, government is loathe to use it.

Either way, what the hell, people?

Business continuity plans are essential

You don’t need to be running government, a department or a supermarket to understand why business continuity plans are useful.

What seems to keep people away from them mostly is that we get oddly superstitious about it. We think having a plan for when things hit the fan tempts fate. Or it’s a waste of money if we build for troubling scenarios that never eventuate.

The problem is things we do not expect happen. Burying our heads in the sand or thinking everything you build must be applied at some point to be useful is pretty basic, short-sighted thinking.

You plan so you never have to use the plan. But if you do, you’re covered.

None of us are able to take some Die Hard style approach to saving the situation. Especially when they are large-scale.

That’s why critically assessing and plotting out the what if/then that moments in business are vital.

Along with getting over our fear of remote work, I really hope we learn that business continuity plans are just as much a part of business or governance as yearly forecasts or business plans.

Want to stop running around without a map? Get me to write your business continuity plans now. 

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