Crisis management 101

Preparing for disaster means preparing yourself to act decisively when little is known

I recently participated in some war-game-style what-if exercises with a small group of IT execs. The goal was to stimulate thinking about how corporations can best prepare for, and respond to, significant business disruptions, whether from terrorism, weather, biological threats, or other unexpected shocks.

We were split into two groups, each with a particular scenario to discuss for half an hour. The groups were then flipped, so we could be exposed to both scenarios. The first situation involved a global health pandemic that begins to spread out of control, based on human-to-human transmission. The second involved a near-total shutdown of global IP networks.

What stuck me was the degree to which even a sophisticated group of senior managers can be thrown off guard by the unknown or the unexpected. For example, when presented with the unexplained near-total shutdown of the Internet and all IP-based private networks, one group spent its first 10 minutes debating whether such an event was even possible — especially the private networks part — before diving in to create an action plan to deal with the situation.

Although it’s good to think critically and not take everything at face value, it’s also useful to not to get too anchored in “what we know to be true.” One thing I realized during this exercise is that when the next big disruption comes, the biggest potential danger is that it won’t make complete sense. After all, we didn’t know for hours after the second plane hit the World Trade Center whether any more hijacked planes were still in the air, let alone how exactly the attacks unfolded. We didn’t know for three days after Hurricane Katrina whether the levees could be breached or, in fact, had already been breached.

If global IP networks go down, we won’t likely have perfect knowledge about what’s going on. But acting decisively in the face of those whose instinct is to wait until everything is known is essential. After all, unexpected events tend to compound on one another in chain reactions. Be prepared to quickly assess a situation, make tough decisions, and communicate with key constituencies (employees, customers, and so on), and you’ll be better positioned to rein in the chaos. Let’s hope we never have to deal with one of the above scenarios. But if we do, let’s give the facts equal weight with our instincts and our prior experiences, so we can act decisively and keep things from getting too far out of control.

Mail Call I’ve been getting a lot of e-mail from readers lately, mostly regarding my recent columns about AT&T and Internet energy consumption. One intriguing note came from Einar in Norway, citing Norwegian stats about residential IT consumption vs. enterprise IT consumption. If you can read Norwegian (I can’t), you can access the data here.

The main reason I mention this, however, is that I didn’t know anyone in Norway was reading this column, although I was aware folks in Romania and New Zealand were tuned in. So, in an effort to get a better view of the global IT picture, I’d like to encourage readers outside the United States to send me a quick e-mail. Let me know where you are and what interests you about the column.

Why bother doing this? Because IT is a global business, and I’m constantly conscious of trying not to be too U.S.-centric. Help me broaden my horizons. And, in an upcoming column, I’ll report back on the results of this global IT straw poll.