Staying in Touch

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2001-10-08 Print this article Print

Staying in Touch

Having a work space recovery plan in place means nothing if companies are unable to effectively communicate temporary office locations or other emergency instructions to employees. Experts say using public corporate Web sites to provide customers and clients with critical information—as enterprises such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and United Airlines Inc. did after the WTC incident—is among the fastest ways to deliver information to employees, customers and clients.

Lower-tech approaches are also important. At Visa, all employees are issued a plastic card printed with an emergency number to keep in their wallets. The back of the card states that in the event of an emergency, employees are to call the toll-free number to receive the latest general information. The card allows managers to record information specific to their business divisions outlining where employees should go or what they are expected to do.

On Sept. 11, the system worked. Visas emergency operations centers all over the world held hourly briefings with executives to ensure the status of Visa offices and people was communicated throughout the company. (The company had no offices in the WTC.) Visa also updated the information on its toll-free line hourly.

"The best business continuity plan means nothing if you fail to come up with an internal communications plan," said John McCarthy, director of critical infrastructure for KPMG LLP, in Washington. "Companies need to decide how theyre going to communicate with people in a local, regional or national disaster. And they cannot rely only on e-mail or telephone service."

Besides arranging for backup office space and technology, some enterprises have made sure employees can work productively from home in an emergency. Visa employees who perform critical business functions are issued computers with virtual private network capabilities for use at home. The computers are wired with broadband and telephone dial-up capabilities.

In the event that telephone communication is impossible, Visa requires executives to carry e-mail-capable two-way pagers so emergency alerts and information can be transmitted. They are also given mobile phones equipped with Wireless Application Protocol browsers. "In the event that an employee is unable or unwilling to leave his or her home, critical work functions and customer support can still be provided," Lieberman said.

In light of the WTC attacks, many corporations that shunned telecommuting in the past are now setting up remote access capabilities, said Carl Greiner, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., in Stamford. "When you stop and think about it, theres not much you cant do from home," Greiner said.

Even companies that were well- prepared came away from the WTC disaster with lessons to factor into their continuity planning process. While companies such as Visa had detailed emergency communication plans, few, for instance, have plans to deal with the closing of U.S. air space. Many contingency plans rely on the shuttling of employees among office locations via airplanes.

Executives at Visa said that while they have remote work policies in place, they are re-evaluating alternative ways of making sure critical employees can get to other office locations around the world.

"If a crisis goes on for a specific time, we look for interim plans that involve using our offices all over the world," Lieberman said. "We are, however, recognizing the need to re-evaluate everything in light of air traffic controls and other restrictions. Right now, if people cant get into our offices, they are prepared to work remotely from where they are."

The Sept. 11 attacks have made once-inconceivable disaster scenarios all too real. FedEx, for example, after hearing that Memphis was a top 10 target for terrorist attacks because of FedExs central role in the national economy, is now evaluating the terrorism portions of its business continuity plans, considering new ways it could be attacked.

Others, including Visa, are also wondering if perhaps continuity plans need to cover all potential outcomes, including the death of employees.

"We are conducting a full re-evaluation of our strategy," Lieberman said. "I can honestly say that the loss of people was not a factor that we had planned for to any large extent. And, unfortunately, all businesses and Americans are going to have to reconsider reality."

While even such ghastly aspects of business continuity planning are now necessary, experts agree that it is neither cost-effective nor practical to plan for every possible outcome.

"You cannot spend your time chasing large scenarios that you cant necessarily plan for or prevent," KPMGs McCarthy said.

Pioneer, for instance, has planned its business continuity around events that could leave its buildings inaccessible for a few days at a time. But it hasnt planned for them collapsing outright. "Were not planning for the one-in-a-hundred-years event but for the one that occurs every year or two," Cady said.

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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