Working through disruptions
As the possible continuation of India’s three-week lockdown looms large, business continuity models that allow certain economic activities to be carried out become vital
A week before the completion of the twenty-one-day national lockdown, there is growing apprehension that if public prohibitory measures are removed, it can potentially nullify the gains achieved in terms of containment of the virus spread. In this scenario, various media reports suggest that government agencies are working on the idea of 'business continuity' by prioritising certain key functions and activities which can be taken up without necessarily removing all the restrictions. It will serve two primary objectives; minimise the scale of societal disruption to the extent possible without jeopardising public safety and buy further time to assess the severity of the nCoV-19 threat and strategise accordingly.
Business continuity as an idea gained much attention since the early 2000s in the foreground of some of the mega-disasters which occurred in developed countries including WTC attack in the USA. Numbers of business organisations, both large and small, in spite of having robust and effective disaster plans, were found wanting in terms of how to continue core business operations. The conventional approach of waiting to resume until the situation stabilises or when normalcy is restored endangered the survival of the business itself. Consequently, there was a realisation that 'business continuity' deserves enhanced emphasis which on one hand be coordinated with the overall disaster response plan and on the other hand, should identify key functions, resources, processes from a specific business perspective to continue in the event of a sustained disruption. Over the years, business organisations in general and critical entities in particular such as in those in power, bank and finance, information services etc., have undertaken systematic planning exercises for achieving readiness. Some have made fundamental changes to their basic framework, exhibiting the importance of having a sound continuity plan. Sources of disruptions can be external as the present pandemic or an earthquake, ethnic or communal conflict etc., and can also be internal as well such as a legal or product controversies. Overall, such plans are to ensure that in a period of crisis as the current disruption poses, there should be clarity over which key business functions can be continued. What form can they continue in? For how long and requiring which changes in the management process? Public or private organisations which have carried out business continuity exercises as part of their overall disaster resilience programs are certainly better served but those who have not will have to quickly get their acts together as there are persisting uncertainties over how long the current situation will take for normalcy to be completely restored.
A general framework to draw out a 'business continuity' strategy comprises three key steps. First, prioritise which critical functions are requiring to be continued immediately or in the short and medium-term. This obviously varies across businesses, for example for an educational institute such as a university, it could be course delivery or student certification while for a restaurant chain, merchandise or cottage industry, there is the option of home delivery. A large manufacturing company could include specific components or a particular assembly line while a service industry may focus on core business functions absolutely essential from a client's perspective.
In the second step, assessment is made over which of the prioritised functions are feasible and to what extent can they be undertaken? This involves much consideration because of the reduced organisational capacity due to underlying circumstances. Employee's psychological conditions and their motivation to work, travel restrictions, inventory shortfalls, supply chain disruptions etc., are some of the potential constraints in addition to government-mandated regulations enforced for virus containment. There will be times when basic features of products and services will require modification to ensure their continuation.
The third step is the execution of the plan, by bringing necessary changes within the organisational management framework. For example, incentives for employees, their safety, compensation, innovation in business operation such as 'work from home' facilities which are already in widespread use wherever there is scope. During such a period of crisis, customers need to be taken into confidence and they should be updated on scope and limitations of continuity so as to moderate their expectations and appreciate the value of services. Performance under these challenging conditions and meeting client's expectations is one important aspect from a long term business interest's perspective but so is ensuring the employees' sense of safety and security, alongside recognition of their contribution in adverse conditions.
India has carried out sustained disaster resilience and preparedness program in a systematic way under the framework of the 'Disaster Management Act 2005'. As part of its overall goals, disaster management plans have been prepared at all levels. Barring exceptions, 'business continuity' focus, however, is missing in most of these plans or at best, peripherally addressed. Take for example, the 'National Disaster Management Plan' that was brought out as recently as 2016 and which failed to provide adequate emphasis or integration for 'business continuity' into the overall response planning framework. The current situation thus provides an opportunity for the public sector organisations, in particular, to develop business continuity plans and execute them with efficiency and effectiveness. Development of each of these plans requires deliberation among key stakeholders and should be flexible in adapting to the changing circumstances. Each sector of business brings its own set of uniqueness and challenges as well and requires continual dialogue between authorities and business entities. The role of the government thus becomes important in facilitating new collaborations, innovations and solutions. Experience and lessons learned during this period should be documented and plans appropriately redesigned for future crisis and similar disruptions.
The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Science, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. Views expressed are strictly personal