A closer look at implementing a business disaster recovery plan

What would happen to your business in the event of a disaster? The old adage "expect the unexpected" is key to understanding the principles of business continuity planning. Many small business owners fail to develop such a plan because they believe they cannot afford the necessary resources. Yet a scarcity of resources makes a plan even more essential. Here are a few steps you can take to put one in place.

The first thing to understand is that disasters will happen. Floods and fires – or tornadoes and earthquakes depending on where you are in the world – are all risks, and while you think they most likely won’t happen, the probability of an occurrence is never zero.

Simply saying, "When there's a disaster, we'll deal with it," is a guaranteed way to fail. Let's face it, big businesses have more resources than the little guys. They can have multiple call centres and hot sites that pick up the slack when a regional disaster takes out a data processing centre. Small businesses don't have that luxury and need to be creative when drafting a disaster plan.

The owner or senior management must advocate for the development of a business continuity plan. This isn't simply an IT matter; a disaster will affect each business line. Therefore, a thorough plan requires the input of different business groups. Make it clear that everyone is expected to contribute, no matter which department they work in – from the top executives to the mailroom. Further, by allocating staff and budget, you send the message that the company is ready to act quickly and decisively. Too often, business continuity plans never materialise, either because no one takes concrete steps to develop them or because proper funding and manpower are not dedicated to the task.

The next step is to conduct a risk analysis. Look at each business area and note the possible risks associated with it. How much money could you lose? How many customers could you lose? Will you be able to continue to comply with regulations? Don't forget that you need to protect electronic and paper information, such as contracts. Keep paper documents in a fire-resistant cabinet, duplicate them and store them off-site, or scan them into a document management system.

In many cases, the best continuity plan for a small business is nothing more than an accurate, up-to-date operations manual that describes how you run your business, make backups, and run the telecommunications infrastructure, as well as lists your vendors and employee contact information. Keep this manual in a place where employees can access and update it from anywhere, such as a secure website.

In the event of a disaster, maintaining open communications is essential. In the hours before or during a disaster you should contact all your employees individually, to tell them what's happening and how it affects their jobs, and to provide them with instructions. A message blast service can be very helpful, but a small company on a budget could get by with a simple call tree.

And once again – keep your data and documents safe. Back up to an off-site location, whether that’s a physical backup or the cloud (preferably double up your backups, of course). Keep contracts in a fireproof safe or cabinet. Create a secure website. Back up local files on every employee's hard drive, not just on the server.

Your people are your most important resource, so make sure you keep them apprised of the situation and what they should be doing.