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Psychological memory: the key to effective incident recovery

Charles Boffin, CEO, of ClearView Continuity, explains what ‘psychological memory’ and ‘muscle memory’ in fitness training are and explains how the same concepts are important in effective incident response.

There is a school of thought that an incident is simply an exercise that’s real.

There is another school of thought that incidents and exercises are different animals, by their very natures.

Proponents of the first school will set out that rehearsal of key processes and actions provides familiarity and corporate memory that enables a much smoother process when plans are invoked for real. Followers of the second school believe that incidents are very individual in type, scale and content and thus will be very distinct activities, albeit guided by plan activities/actions in determining the right result.

As ever, the ‘truth’ often lies somewhere in-between. It is true that we cannot plan for every eventuality and indeed, many organisations focus, understandably, on key impact areas rather than causes. Loss of buildings, IT and people are all core operational disablers. But the reality is that ‘incident’ can be something of a catch-all term for a myriad of events. Loss of specific IT systems? Loss of some operational elements? Loss of certain key people? Different combinations of some/all of these?

Whichever school you subscribe to, there is clear evidence that ‘memory’ plays an import role in all of this. For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, muscle memory is a key factor in success. The body is tuned to act in a certain way through repeated activity; whether it be jumping a hurdle, lifting weights or kicking a football. In this example, whilst other factors such as height, weight, muscle strength and build, plus aerobic capacity and stamina, will all contribute, one of the key drivers is the unconscious ability to undertake an activity without having to focus on the practical applications.

Muscle memory and psychological memory

A key parallel can also be drawn with business continuity and emergency management. In the world of athletics, the athlete’s training plan is developed with a coach to cover all the key elements required to win a race or competition.  The athlete rehearses, refines, agrees tactics (fast start; fast finish; go it alone or sit in the pack) and then rehearses again to reinforce the agreed tactics. Throughout all of this there are two important memory issues: ‘muscle memory’, the creation of an embedded process(es) in the body which then automatically turns on when the activity starts; and ‘psychological memory’, the belief that success can be achieved because the constant rehearsal has provided the confidence that the activity can be achieved without a problem. This memory (or familiarity) kicks into action when required.

For business continuity plans the same issues pertain. Muscle memory is the ability to take a plan and know where it is at time of need (on the mobile, on the tablet, at the desk – what’s my log-in, when was it last up-dated?) then be ready to follow the agreed rules and procedures in order to achieve an effective recovery. The psychological memory is the confidence that this has been done many times before, probably both in exercise/test and in real life, so that there is an inherent confidence that focuses on the outputs, i.e. recovery, with no need to worry about whether the process will work effectively.

Exercising and testing a plan is a key factor as it covers all three key elements of psychological memory:

  1. Encodes activities so that the information can be retained by different means – acoustic, semantic, visual i.e. laying the foundations;
  2. Storing the memory in short and long term memories;
  3. Retrieving the memory.

In a practical way, systems such as software support all three elements. The information is encoded and stored in the technological memory and can then be accessed at time of need by a variety of devices. But technology cannot succeed on its own and it is universally acknowledged that the key success factor is ‘people’.

So, for the emergency response team or business continuity team, of course there will be guidelines in the form of the incident management or BC plan setting out response options/actions, but the psychological memory plays an important part in success as it provides the confidence to manage the process in a familiar way and so helps people focus on outputs rather than the process itself. In short, when in a race (incident), the athlete should concentrate on how to get to the finishing line first rather than how his or her legs should propel them most effectively.

Corporate health

So, exercising is important for your corporate health, irrespective of which school you follow. And software can play a key role in this.

At ClearView we have carefully developed functionality that supports this aspiration. Our clients use our flexible technology to support their test and exercise methodologies in different ways:

  • Templates which allow the creation, management and recording and different types of exercise, from table top to full blown recovery site tests.
  • Our mobile incident management functionality in test mode, to manage and record the exercise process from remote locations.
  • Test scripting linked to plans to manage the practical test activity.

The author

Charles Boffin is CEO, ClearView Continuity.


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