Has there ever been a more difficult time to be a CIO?
The global economic meltdown. Downsizing. Cost cutting. Renegotiating vendor deals. Strategic IT planning. The skills shortage. Leading innovation. Postponing and reprioritising projects. Maintaining operational stability. Mentoring future leaders. The list of demands being placed on senior IT executives seems to get longer every day.
And now, of course, CIOs can add the worst global flu pandemic in over 40 years to that long list of challenges.
I've had swine flu on my mind a lot lately, and not just because the World Health Organization recently raised the pandemic warning from level five to six, its highest alert. For one thing, a quick scan of the latest news headlines, with layoffs everywhere you look, faked e-mails causing a stir in parliament and the World Bank predicting the global economy will shrink even more than it first anticipated, I can't help but wonder if the H1N1 virus really made the jump to humans or we're just becoming more like swine.
But as bad as the news has been lately, it was a conversation at a CIO event a couple weeks ago that really got me thinking about the swine flu pandemic -- and what it can teach us about business continuity. At the event, I caught up with a senior IT exec who was lamenting the difficulties he faced because one of his key employees had just been quarantined, along with his family, after being exposed to swine flu virus on a flight.
Once I'd finished recoiling in horror at the idea of being confined to the house with my family for a week, the discussion made me realise just how far reaching the impact of events like the swine flu pandemic can be for enterprises. Business continuity planning isn't just about keeping the servers running during a blackout, or even making sure key executives can work remotely in a crisis -- it's assembling an incident response group, identifying critical services, organising alternative work arrangements, making sure staff are cross-trained in critical tasks and preparing for employees who might be sick or quarantined, or missing as a result of schools and child care centres being closed.
The notion that challenges can also be opportunities might be a cliché, but I believe the concept applies to the swine flu outbreak. As anyone in IT can tell you, you often get the best insight about how a system works by the way it fails. The current concern over the spread of swine flu is revealing the flaws in many organisations' business continuity plans -- and that's a good thing. As alarming as the current outbreak of swine flu might be, we've come a long way since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic infected a third of the world's population and killed over 50 million people. But other disasters are no doubt waiting for us in the future and planning ahead is still the best defence.
As Dematic CIO Allan Davies points out in this month's "Pandemic Planning" story, it's not really IT's job to lead business continuity planning, but nevertheless the responsibility for it has a way of landing in IT's lap. But, as Davies says, business continuity planning is also a great opportunity for "IT to show some leadership and a good way to get involved in all the areas of the business".
If the swine flu outbreak is prompting companies to take a closer look at business continuity plans, it proves that even a crisis can have a silver lining. It also serves as a reminder that in times of trouble the business will always look to IT for solutions. Rather than lament having yet another challenge heaped on their shoulders, smart CIOs will view this time as opportunity to reaffirm IT's value and get closer to the business.
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