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Culture, psychology and crisis management

Do cultural differences have an influence on reactions to incidents? Charles Boffin uses an example of a significant Internet backbone incident in Australia to explore differing psychological reactions to the same crisis.

Recently there was a short-lived, but significant incident in Australia that paralysed part of the Internet backbone and left many Internet and data centre / center suppliers unable to deliver a service to many thousands of clients. This was not a glitch, not a minor infraction – many hosting providers lost network connectivity in both production and DR data centres in different cities.

The problem was solved and normal service was resumed after about an hour. Now, the interesting issues in all of this was the following. There seemed to be far more controlled ‘panic’ about the outage (with a small ‘p’, I hasten to add) on the European side of the world than in the Antipodes. In Australia, there seemed to be much less of a disturbance (if nothing) as the problem was rectified, the Internet ‘reconnected’ and matters returned to normal.

Question. Why was there, apparently, such a different approach to the psychological impact of such events? Of course, we all aim to avoid the ‘headless chicken’ scenario but, in many years of visiting Australia, I have to say that there is a genuine and unmitigatedly positive approach to disaster recovery and business continuity. This isn’t complacency by any means – it is a genuine cultural belief that matters can be sorted. And they generally are.

Cultural identities

The reason, I mention this is that we all have an in-built ‘OMG’ function/reaction, whenever any disruptive event occurs. The size and scale of reaction varies between individuals, but the fundamental is there, and it can be a ’make or break’ event for many businesses. This is nothing new. Crowd hysteria can lead to queues at banks, draining liquidity and causing irreparable damage. Even minor disruptive events can be magnified in the eyes of consumers, leading to major impacts.

The Australian reaction is noteworthy. My own son lives in Brisbane and, a few years ago, I was talking to him on the phone as he commented that a garden shed was floating down the Brisbane River just below him. Not a major issue. There had been huge flooding in the area and parts of the CBD were under-water. “She’ll be right, mate”. And with the right collective response, it was.

Perhaps a country that is faced with both significant natural disasters (flood/fire) and man-made events (growing risk of terrorism) has got it right. Cool, calm, action to resolve the issue. No mass panic. No unnecessary actions that could cause further disruption. Sorted!

Why?

Research is focused on individuals managing the crisis or the teams/crowds directly affected, not the public, cultural, response. Perhaps this is because the business continuity industry tends to focus on those directly involved in the process rather than the indirect players: i.e. we assess impact on third parties as part of the BIA process but not the cultural reasons for impact (at what point will adverse PR lead to loss of commercial credibility in the eyes of customers?).

It is tempting to make some broad-brush assertions in this area and I suspect that these might be quite accurate. For example, in the face of a critical event, would the cultural norms of, say, Japan, lead to a different public reaction than, say, Brazil or Russia or the UK? I suspect that the answer is yes, although I also accept that this may not be just culture, but also other factors coming to play such as political, economic or environmental aspects. Democracy and a free-market economy brings too many benefits to mention, but the devil’s advocate may point out that good old authoritarianism is sometimes required in the face of critical events.

One interesting question is how the business continuity industry should factor in these wider cultural issues into local business continuity planning methodologies. Indeed, should they be factored in? Should global/international businesses take a common, corporate approach across all locations or should local culture be taken into account? I hesitate to draw conclusions but suspect that this is an active, internal debate in many organizations.

The author

Charles Boffin is CEO of ClearView Continuity.



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