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Pat Corcoran, Global Strategy Executive for IBM Business Resiliency Services, provides advice for organizations considering how to prepare for an active Atlantic hurricane season during pandemic times.

The upcoming 2020 Atlantic hurricane season will be different this year. Whether businesses or state and local governments are prepared or not, this year’s season is quickly approaching and forecasted to be significantly more active than usual by meteorologists from The Weather Channel, an IBM business.

Already grappling with the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, this added element will provide additional challenges for businesses and governments preparing for and recovering from an incident. In a worst-case scenario, many of these organizations are likely to face an unprecedented dilemma – to ‘shelter in place’ or evacuate. As the COVID-19 curve hopefully begins to flatten while hurricane season kicks into high gear, leveraging the power of technology and good planning will help everyone weather the storm and emerge more prepared than ever for what comes next.

Look at your business continuity plans now

I recently gave a webinar about achieving or maintaining business resiliency during a crisis, and the number one piece of advice I shared was to review and assess your business continuity plan (BCP) now. One thing I have consistently seen in my 43 years with IBM is that every crisis triggers a domino effect of other crises – or a chain reaction. As the COVID-19 crisis grew, its devastating domino effect knocked down economies, societies, businesses, and personal lives. It has impacted things as diverse as manufacturing, aviation, tourism, and travel, as well as retail, healthcare, and supply chain. It is critical to understand and address the chain reaction from a crisis in a BCP, especially now that the upcoming hurricane season will force businesses to make decisions they never thought about or had to plan for before.

Some things that leaders must consider and improve in their BCPs are the impacts on people, infrastructure, supply chains, and insurance. During disasters and other unplanned events, businesses need a plan to support the people that keep the business operational, as well as the technology that supports them. Whether working to mitigate displacement from COVID-19 or evacuations due to a hurricane, the physical safety and mental wellbeing of people is the most important factor in maintaining business continuity. Availability and/or stability for infrastructure, whether buildings or transportation routes, is also critical to address in your BCP. In support of your infrastructure, don’t forget to understand and include your local government’s crisis plans. Another key element of your BCP is understanding, prioritizing and ensuring the availability of your supply chain. This is the first event that I’ve seen that is truly global, and where the supply chains for everyone have been impacted. From an insurance standpoint, organizations need to understand what coverage they have, based on different scenarios, and determine what they need to share with insurance companies to get the appropriate support, guidance and coverage.

Early notification fuels data-driven decision making

A major concern of local governments, first responders, non-profits, and other businesses in hurricane-impacted zones is how to track when the next incident will occur and where. Early notification about a storm pattern allows businesses to proactively communicate with their customers ahead of a natural disaster and discuss the currency of their BCP to prevent or minimize data loss. In addition, you also need to ensure your BCP is properly addressing the fastest growing risk – which are cyber threats.  From managing the increased risk of cyber attacks during a crisis to data replication and protection, whether in the cloud or in a physical data center / centre, organizations must ensure that all of this information is properly addressed in the BCP; enabling businesses to take the appropriate actions to prevent or minimize the impacts from a crisis event.

IBM uniquely specializes in this type of scenario planning, helping organizations around the world, especially in hurricane-prone areas, identify emerging and unknown risks and increase their resiliency to those situations. Using real-time weather forecasts from The Weather Channel, geolocation data of hospitals, airports and other distribution points, as well as news alerts showing on-the-ground conditions, IBM developed the Operations Risk Insight (ORI) tool to harness this information and share insights with governments, businesses and disaster relief organizations, up to a week ahead of when a crisis, like a natural disaster or weather event is supposed to take place. This tool flagged a potential COVID-19 outbreak in early January by picking up on social media discussions around a ‘mysterious pneumonia’ in China. By March, IBM was working with state and local governments, as well as healthcare agencies from California, New York, Georgia, Texas and more to put critical data and information into the hands of their citizens around COVID-19.  

Don't forget cyber security

Our experience shows that instances of cyber attacks tend to rise during natural disasters and global emergencies. It is easy for businesses to make mistakes and not follow standard protocol while trying to manage other critical business operations during a crisis. Businesses need to remember to protect their data and the systems on which it is created and managed, to make sure it can be recovered securely and quickly. Also, it is important for businesses to notify their customers, and for everyone to be aware of the likely possibility of an increase in malware and phishing attacks. Whether due to a natural disaster or COVID-19, many of us are working from home and are not in our usual workplace. We may be using home computers or networks which may not have the same security protections as we would normally have when working in the office so the need to focus on security best practices is more important than ever. 

Use key learnings from the past to power your future

During this challenging moment, everyone is experiencing many different emotions. Fear, anger, frustration, and sadness are an outward representation of the uncertainty in the world and feelings of our lives being out of control. Tapping into these emotions to ask important questions like “what do we fear?” and “what can we learn from this?” leads to growth and allows for a better understanding of what is and is not working and how we can emerge from any crisis stronger and better.

The author

Pat Corcoran is the Global Strategy Executive for IBM Business Resiliency Services.

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Business continuity can be defined as 'the processes, procedures, decisions and activities to ensure that an organization can continue to function through an operational interruption'. Read more about the basics of business continuity here.

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