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Gary Harrold, Chief Executive Officer at Swiss Post Solutions UK & Ireland highlights some of the lessons that can be learned from the current pandemic for improving future operational resilience practices.

Quarantined travel, second waves, and potential new strains means that our current COVID-19 crisis will be on lips and board agendas for many months, if not years to come. At some point we must accept we are beyond the point of ‘crisis’ and continue to prepare for the unexpected.

Should we be surprised? As commentators for Continuity Central have questioned, are we really experiencing a ‘Black Swan’ event - an unpredictable event with extreme consequences? Perhaps not. Given the warnings we had had about the likelihood of global outbreaks - H1N1, SARs - our current crisis was a matter of when, not if. Have we been too optimistic for too long?

Unfortunately, many organizations, no matter their size or sector have paid the price for taking an overly optimistic approach to operational resilience. Commonly referred to as ‘optimism bias’ - the prevailing attitude has been that it’s not us that will be hit by disaster. Such bias serves no one, especially in the face of a global crisis! However, now the dust has settled, pre-crisis optimism has given rise to sober realism.

As reported here recently according to our joint research with NelsonHall, following the fallout of this crisis 96 percent of banking, insurance, and healthcare executives reported they had suffered from a lack of business continuity planning, with just 16 percent believing their operations to be highly resilient to another crisis. Contrast this to the 80 percent who said that they were broadly confident in the resilience of their cyber security efforts and the level of operational risk is stark.

One of the key issues underpinning low operational resilience has been that, despite our global economy, localised thinking still reigns. Business continuity plans are often city and centrally focused rather than enterprise-wise. This doesn’t help when a crisis can’t be contained to one geography. We’re not just talking about outbreaks of disease - consider the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, not to mention the borderless and ever-present risk of cyber attack.

Where is operational resilience lacking?

Some of the challenges thrown up by the current crisis have been obvious; increases in remote working, health and safety of staff, issues with physical spaces. Others have grabbed fewer headlines but have been as impactful; a surge in demand for customer communication, shifting regulatory changes, maintaining workforce efficiency.

As we know, the ability to quickly transition to home working has been make or break in the last months. In the face of increased communications needs, what has been particularly worrying is the problems organizations have faced moving knowledge, data and associated operations between sites and personnel. When workers need to be quickly deployed to other sites not considered in any previous plan, or to work from home there needs to be an agile operational infrastructure to support it.

Over 70 percent of organizations reported to us that their ability to make this transition was severely hampered by a lack of remote access to data and documents. With workers unable to access the documents they needed, just 10 percent of executives were confident they had met SLAs, with the worst affected areas being customer communications, order fulfillment and sales support - it’s not hard to imagine the fall out of these dropped and cancelled services.

Resilience in an environment that requires homeworking or more flexible offices is built upon the ability to access and process documents securely and in compliance with regulatory requirements. Digitising document workflows services - both paper based and electronic - is no longer just a stop on the way to digital transformation, it is a foundation of operational resilience.

What steps should be taken to bolster operational resilience?

‘Extraordinary times’ has become the mantra within many recent discussions. However, as previously highlighted, in the world of business continuity, commentators have made the point that this pandemic is far from a Black Swan’. However, now is not the time to wallow in mistakes but we need to take stock and make decisions that will underpin operational resilience in readiness for the next crisis. Here are some lessons from our recent research:

Take stock - inside and out

It goes without saying that organizations need a robust business continuity plan in place, but what many fail to do is ensure that these are end-to-end, encompassing suppliers and outsourced services.
Under 40 percent of organizations were satisfied with their outsourcing partners during this crisis. Now’s the time to rethink your partners and how you work with them. That might mean amending contractual terms or finding new partners. Whatever path you take you must ensure that partners are able and willing to support and deliver your continuity plans in the face of crisis.

Embrace location-independent services

We know that flexibility in relation to home working or different service locations is vital. Many organizations have already taken steps to rid themselves of large, central offices but this has obvious implications for secure and compliant access and processing of documents. Digitising documents in a secure, compliant manner enables agile movement of processes between service centers and home environments.

In light of this, document processing of electronic and physical documents is seen as vital to establishing operational resilience; 92 percent of organizations are looking to increase automation while 80 percent are looking to digitise mailrooms, with over 70 percent seeking to digitalise document processes.

As John Willmot, CEO of NelsonHall says, “The recent crisis has extensively exposed the limitations of existing center-focused business continuity planning. To increase their future operational resilience, enterprises now need their BCP [business continuity] plans to be location-independent and to support widespread work-from-home. This necessitates increasing the digitalisation of document processing and distribution and enhancing the ability to move agent knowledge between sites and personnel.”

Seek high-impact automation

IDC’s President, Crawford Del Prete recently described the process businesses will take to recover from this current crisis. He believes that having dealt with the initial shock of lockdown, we are soon to enter the stage of focus on business resilience, where organizations must look to digital transformation initiatives to recover and ready themselves for a coming recession. The investments made during this time will see them ready to enter a post-recession growth phase. Successful organizations that reach that growth phase will have used this current time to extend digital transformation initiatives focused on agility.

Operational resilience is becoming increasingly synonymous with digital transformation. For example, manual processing of physical documents clearly has a very low level of operational resilience whereas automated and electronic document processing enjoys higher levels of operational resilience. Increasing automation has a direct impact on the resilience of key service areas such as customer care; 92% of organizations plan to increase automation of processes following this crisis.

As Del Prete argues, the time is right for previously cautious, highly regulated industries to embrace such transformation. For example, insurers in the UK have responded to the current crisis by rapidly accelerated automation initiatives such as the use of digital mailrooms and automation to digitise document processing. This is a step that the crisis has made a necessity, but that will have transformational impact for the future.

From continuity to resilience

The British Standards Institution states that resilience is “…a strategic objective intended to help an organization survive and prosper …the ability to anticipate, prepare, respond and adapt to minor everyday events to acute shocks and chronic or incremental change”. Becoming resilient is not the ability to action location-specific, tactical responses to seemingly ‘random’ shocks but about enterprise-wide planning for any event that might occur.

The next year will undoubtedly prove to be an uphill battle to counter the effects of the current crisis. However, this has also afforded the opportunity for organizations to focus on building operational resilience that will not only see them through future crisis’ but will ensure a foundation for first-rate digital transformation that will ultimately deliver growth.

The author

Gary Harrold, Chief Executive Officer at Swiss Post Solutions UK & Ireland: as CEO of Swiss Post Solutions, UK & Ireland Gary Harrold leads a team delivering business process solutions for clients across industries including banking, insurance and healthcare. Headquartered in Zurich, SPS is a global full-service provider of physical and digital Document Management services and information processing.

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