Comment : Communication immunisation for SMEs

Whether it’s a natural disaster or an epidemic, businesses can temporarily and often suddenly, lose effective communication with customers, which is why it is important to have plans in place which ensure business continuity.

Take, for instance, the outbreak of the Norovirus in the early weeks of this year. At its height one in eight people were off sick due to its infectiousness and long incubation period, costing the economy £12 million a week.

The recent problems at Heathrow’s T5 give another example of an unexpected disruption for businesses, with some 430 flights cancelled in the first week alone and nearly 200 more cancelled due to heavy snow just a few days later.

Whilst delays were in part due to the processes in place, the weather was a major contributing factor - something you can never account for. If you look at the other end of the scale, events such as a major flood or fire can make your entire premise unusable.

It is therefore unsurprising that 80 per cent of business affected by a major incident either never re-open or close within 18 months.

Despite this, business continuity is an area often overlooked by SMEs and Gartner estimates that only 35 per cent have a comprehensive disaster plan in place - usually because they can’t see the business benefit and it is perceived as costly with little guarantee that it will ever be of use.

SMEs need to recognise the importance of business continuity because the way business is conducted has dramatically changed over the last 20 years.

The relatively leisurely pace at which interactions occurred when the most immediate contact we had was the telephone is fast disappearing.

Email, instant messaging and the ubiquity and portability of the Internet really does mean that our approach to, and means of, working has changed. We are also more mobile, and as business travel increases so does the risk of being held up by, for example, traffic or flight cancellations.

Alongside this customer expectations have also changed. They now expect access to organisations as and when they need it, regardless of how mobile businesses are and, perhaps more importantly, whether it is an SME or large enterprise.

This is in part due to SMEs in the UK being more inclined to follow the same pragmatic approach to IT that larger enterprises adopted some time ago, and are competing on a more level playing field. However, this pervasiveness, and subsequent reliance, on technology to punch above their weight and compete against larger organisations puts them in a vulnerable position should this technology become unavailable.

Minor interruptions, where most business facilities, such as IT, are unaffected but employees still can’t get to work on time, occur for a number of reasons.

Some examples are a flood preventing access to the office or a transport strike. In any such case, there is considerable risk that it will bring your business to a near or complete standstill, and invariably a substantial loss in profit.

A quarter of businesses can expect to lose a minimum of £10,000 an hour if business is disrupted and for those in the finance sector this figure can reach millions of pounds.

Sympathy and loyalty doesn’t last long with customers and in such a competitive market they will be quick to turn to one of your competitors if you can’t satisfy their needs. It is much more difficult to then get them back.

Despite these risks, if you mention business continuity to an SME it often conjures up images of a very complex and expensive plan with no guarantee that it will ever be put to use. However, this needn’t be the case.

Many parts of a business’ infrastructure can be leveraged if disaster strikes, with the added benefit of being useful to a business when everything is running smoothly.

Of course, in extreme situations technology alone cannot ensure business continuity. An earthquake for example, could destroy IT infrastructure and render internet-based techniques useless.

However, technology can form part of an effective business continuity plan as for the majority of business disruptions it helps facilitate effective operation regardless of whether employees can get to the office.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications are one such example of these technologies as it means maintenance can be taken care of remotely by the vendor or reseller.

Also, it gives employees greater accessibility if they need to work outside the office. This is because the software only requires an internet connection so it can be used anywhere - from home, at work, or in any wi-fi hotspot - and is increasingly becoming available on wireless devices such as mobile phones and Blackberrys.

As such, users can access the business applications they need whenever they need them, so if employees can’t get to the office they can still be productive elsewhere.

Collaborative SaaS applications like web conferencing develop this notion by allowing users to meet and work with remote colleagues online.

This type of technology can play a critical role in keeping forcibly dispersed workforces operating effectively for extended periods.

To ensure it is used to its full potential it is important SMEs deploy any such system well before a disaster takes place to ensure employees, and indeed suppliers and customers, are familiar with the technology.

It is important, however, to choose a conferencing system that provides sufficiently broad functionality to support the needs of the business, from simple voice conferences to web meetings that allow document sharing, virtual training and large-scale seminars.

It is important to recognise that in a crisis situation, internal communication is just as important as external communication and collaborative applications can provide a fast, secure answer.

This can be taken further by hosting your business on the web through ‘online office’ applications.

These give businesses an online hub from which co-workers, clients and vendors can store and share documents, co-ordinate calendars, make announcements and access emails from any location.

There is also the ability to control access to sensitive files while allowing guests to view public ones, take polls, and manage expense reports.

Voice-over-IP technology can also play a significant role in enabling businesses to stay up and running in the face of disruption, however you do need to ensure your system has a high availability capability.

This means a more engineered, implemented and planned approach. VoIP differs from telephony phone services as desktop VoIP phones are powered by your organisation, not the phone company.

So, if in your business continuity plan you have provided for UPS (uninterruptible power supply) support for your network, you need to ensure that this support extends throughout all of the VoIP components.

Nonetheless, it can enable employees to cost-effectively re-create their office on a laptop, including a softphone interface that can incorporate presence, so other co-workers’ online status is detected, as well as contact information for customers, vendors and others needed to stay in business.

Again, with all of these communications, it is important that they are used on a day-to-day basis so employees are familiar with them well before they’re called upon if business is disrupted.

This then has the added advantage of addressing the cost issue for SMEs as they become part of the business infrastructure.

The benefits of such technologies are then realised even if the business continuity plan is never used and help support more flexible working practices so employees can be productive wherever they are.

SMEs ignore business continuity at their peril. They cannot afford to overlook the vast costs of business interruptions and any loss of communication with customers, however temporary, because it can have catastrophic effects.

In the last five years alone global terrorism, major climatic events, and transport strikes have all demonstrated their potential for disrupting business continuity.

It is very encouraging that SMEs are already savvy when it comes to technology and are well placed to compete against much larger organisations.

This now needs to be extended to solutions and applications that can be used on a day-to-day basis and support a cost-effective business continuity plan to ensure they have the best chance of maintaining that edge in any situation.