The First World War claimed around 14 million people from many nationalities by the time it was over. Yet nearly twice as many people died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic that followed the war.
Influenza pandemics are a recurring feature of history. And, according to the World Health Organization, the world is the closest it's been to an influenza pandemic since 1968. Today the number of deaths from avian flu, which is carried by migratory birds, continues to rise. The only thing preventing authorities from calling the current situation a pandemic is a lack of efficient human-to-human transmission. However, because influenza viruses have the ability to mutate, scientists are increasingly concerned that this virus will soon be able to spread easily between people.
Clearly, a pandemic would have a major impact on the world. It is likely that many key personnel would be incapacitated, which would disrupt the delivery of essential government services and degrade the ability of the business sector to operate effectively. Furthermore, without a known antidote, the number one medical advice in such a pandemic will be to minimize human interaction. This then is where ICT comes in.
The best way to minimize human interaction in the workplace would be to encourage telecommuting, and that would require a concurrent change in how organizations typically function: Teleconferencing will replace standard meetings. Videoconferencing will supplant travel. More workers will require remote access. Security needs will shift and need to be enhanced.
In anticipation of all these developments CIOs may need to revisit their organizations' business continuity plans. CIOs will find that addressing a pandemic flu outbreak is very different from providing protection from disasters such as fires, floods or terrorism. These events are specific in location and impact infrastructure. This is not the case with planning against a flu pandemic. Here the geographic scope is much wider so CIOs will find a remote hot site standby strategy is likely to be inadequate. Furthermore, the flu will affect people, not facilities. Therefore, the contingency planning has to identify key personnel and skill sets in the organization to understand how exposed the business would be if these people were unavailable.
While this might all seem doom and gloom, the likelihood of an avian flu pandemic is extremely high. In a world of globalization, executives cannot avoid travel. Increasingly, customers and suppliers are offshore. Regular dialogue with these people is an essential part of day-to-day business. Moreover, the sheer volume of people who need to travel means that once avian flu becomes contagious it can only be a matter of time before someone from Australia gets infected.
I strongly believe that CIOs need to be at the forefront in helping their organizations plan against a potential bird flu pandemic. If they don't act now then it is likely that the business will come to IT for a miracle cure when the flu is a reality. In such circumstances IT can only fail. The task then is to impress upon management that this threat is real and immediate investment is needed if the business is to have some hope of protection. This work also spreads the responsibility for addressing this threat across the business ensuring the CIO need not go to war to fight for the necessary resources.
Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years
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