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In an age uncertainty, power outages reign supreme as a top business disruptor in 2019

(Image credit: Image Credit: Ra2Studio / Shutterstock)

We live in a time of both uncertainty and unrest. Last year, the climate emergency re-emerged into global debate, and protesters – from Hong Kong to Paris – took to the streets to demand change. In the UK, a turbulent year of politics was capped by a decisive election result for the Conservative Party. Now, 2020 has begun with every nation facing a global pandemic, impacting virtually every person and business on the planet and changing the way we live our lives more than any other event in peace time.

Most disruptions pose two major threats. Traditionally, the primary threat of a disaster has been displacement.

Hurricanes, fires, flooding, power outages or even a car through the front of the building can displace employees if they shut down facilities. In this case, employees need an offsite recovery center where they have a resilient and protected power source, connectivity and access to a replication of network and data to get back to work. Data loss is the other. Cyber-attacks often happen weeks or months before anyone notices, giving malware an opportunity to spread and corrupt an organization’s backups.

Due to the ever-changing landscape, Sungard AS closely monitors the extent and causes of businesses accessing – or invoking – disaster recovery facilities, when disruption occurs. Amid the turmoil and uncertainty of the past year, key questions remain: what has been the impact on invocations? What trends can be discerned? And, most importantly, what key lessons can we pass onto organizations worldwide today?

2019 analysis: Fire, civil unrest and terror emerge

According to our annual Disaster Landscape invocation statistics, the top causes of workplace disruption consist primarily of network and internet outages, or power failures. This has been a trend throughout the past decade, showing that the reality of risk is more mundane than public perception might suggest.

However, contrary to 2018, fire became one of the top three contributors for UK invocations. In fact, several large fires caused disruption, including some in high-profile central London developments. Statistics from the UK Home Office indicate that the volume of fires has been steadily increasing from a low point in 2014-2015, although this could be, in part, attributable to increased public awareness following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2016.

A notable change was the rise of protests, comprising 5 percent of UK invocations. This was driven principally by climate group Extinction Rebellion, whose dramatic arrival into the public arena in April 2019 marked a radically different type of protest. Its tactics of mass arrest, and blocking of public transport, implied a new risk dimension for businesses: how are workers meant to access their buildings? And indeed, data suggests that the April and October protests, respectively, inflicted significant workplace disruption.

Did organizations learn from 2018?

The principal causes of workplace disruption continue to mainly fall into ‘everyday’ categories related to power and technology. In 2018, for instance, network and internet outages comprised the single biggest category of invocation in UK facilities; power and electrical outages were the second largest.

There has been some speculation in recent years that the frequency of power outages is rising globally, driven by energy insecurity, rising demand, and the transition to renewable energy sources. High-profile blackouts, such as that in New York in December 2017, or in the UK in August 2019 – which crippled critical national infrastructure – support this view. While industry research has failed to conclusively support these findings, our Disaster Landscape data shows that power outages continue to cause real disruption among our customers worldwide, year after year.

In fact, it could be reasonably inferred from 2018 data that the frequency of terror attacks in the news has little bearing on the risk of terror on workplace disruption. This would be a mistake though. Terror events are inherently unpredictable, and a conclusion cannot be drawn from a single year’s data. November 2019 saw the tragic return of terrorism to the London Bridge area – emphasizing the random nature of these events and how rigorous planning is the best way in which to anticipate, and mitigate, the risk of an attack.

What should organizations do in 2020 to reduce workplace disruption?

As the complexity of IT infrastructure increases, and demands on network and power resources grow, disruption will only likely increase in severity. Secondly: our data shows that, notwithstanding the unwelcome return of terror to our shores in 2019, it was – and is year after year – dwarfed when compared to other contributors, such as power outages. This fact should always be top of mind when assessing the reality of risk for organizations in 2020.

Elsewhere, protests rose in the rankings for 2019 driven by the big issues of our day, such as climate change and Brexit. Although the recent general election may have helped alleviate some political uncertainty, many underlying issues surrounding Britain’s future outside of Europe remain unresolved. Climate change, championed by the younger generation will continue to dominate, and Brexit negotiations will still prove a bruising affair for many years to come.

Organizations aren’t yet at a stage where they can prevent every form of operational interruption from happening. The truth is that while major crises are usually rare, operational disruptions, caused by incidents such as power outages, hardware failures, floods and fire happen all too frequently in business. Companies that don't plan ahead risk facing operational disruption to significant financial loss, and even business closure.

When disruption does occur, it requires the executive leadership team within a business to kick into action and steer the organization to a positive outcome rather than facing what could have been a crisis situation; no easy feat when day to day operations have stopped dead in their tracks. Strong leadership to ensure that a disruption to operations doesn’t become a crisis has never been more important and must be a key aspect of any business looking to weather the current economic and political landscape.

Patrick Morley, VP Global Product Management, Sungard Availability Services