Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


We can tackle the Big with a lot of Small

OK, let me start by saying I'm not trying to bring everybody down with this topic. That said, today I heard a thought-provoking discussion around Gartner's Research advisory, "G00136943: Prepare Now for a Coming Avian Flu Pandemic" (this is a free research note, and Gartner is planning a series of such advisories go to the Gartner web site and search for "pandemic" to find them, along with more detailed for-fee research).

The core warning of the note is that companies should look beyond their current, traditional disaster recovery / business continuity plans, and start developing pandemic response plans. And, we should all be doing this now. Excellent (if disconcerting) advice. Why?

We have not yet experienced a pandemic in the high tech era

Yes, we have disasters all the time - hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, fires, earthquakes, etc. These kinds of disasters only affect a localized geographic area. Even the devastating disasters like huge tsunami of 2004, the earthquakes in 2005, and Hurricane Katrina caused localized sorts of problems. They also tend to have short-lived periods of destruction (i.e. the part that causes damage goes away pretty quickly). All of this means that surrounding global communities who are not affected are able to mobilize fairly quickly and begin providing aid.

In contrast, a "pandemic," (a global epidemic) will affect a large portion of the world in a very short period of time, and could continue for weeks or months. The Gartner note cites a U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report projecting the likely effect that a pandemic of the avian influenza virus H5N1 would have on the U.S. economy, if it were to begin spreading to humans:

"The report considered two possible scenarios:

  • The "mild" scenario: Under this scenario, the CBO projects 75 million cases of H5N1 infection in the United States, with 100,000 deaths, and a 1.5 percent drop in gross domestic product (GDP) -- but no economic recession.
  • The "severe" scenario: Under this scenario, the CBO projects 90 million cases of infection, with 2 million deaths and a 5 percent drop in GDP, leading to recession."

Source: Gartner: Prepare Now for a Coming Avian Flu Pandemic, ID 00136943

Once you get past the human toll, the economic toll will continue:

  • Quarantine actions could shut down global trade (and even interstate trading) for an indeterminate period of time. All of this could mean a long period of disruption, and a significant impact to our personal and business lives. This could also mean scarcity of basic food, water, medicine, and other things we tend to take for granted

  • Large numbers of people working, connecting, and trying to stay in contact from their homes could overwhelm public and private IT infrastructure, and the impact could be amplified if any of that infrastructure begins to have problems

  • Global organizations will have difficulty reaching remote offices, employees, and suppliers

  • Employees and family members could be stranded for weeks or months with no way to get home, and become very reliant on their ability to gain access to assets such as cash, identification, medical records -- even physical and electronic mail and documents -- remotely

  • Insurance processing would be very chaotic compared to "normal" disasters that we experience more often

What should we do about it?

Gartner's view is focused on the IT and business impact of a pandemic, so the note doesn't offer advice for things like lack of available emergency response and health care workers, and things like that. However, it does serve as a warning that we should all begin thinking about how a pandemic might affect us and our businesses. For IT management, Gartner does offer more specific advice:

"By mid-2006, have in place completed pandemic/IT response plans that will, at a minimum:

  • Enable large numbers of knowledge workers to perform their duties from home for an extended period of time
  • Provide the means for workers to collaborate remotely
  • Ensure that consistent communication with suppliers, partners, customers and other stakeholders can be maintained
  • Offer backup means of communication in the event that conventional wireline, wireless, DSL (digital subscriber line), cable or other home-based communications technologies are overburdened by unanticipated traffic loads"

Source: Gartner: Prepare Now for a Coming Avian Flu Pandemic, ID 00136943

The discussion I listened to also recommended things like:

  • Asking your suppliers for their pandemic business continuity plans (above and beyond their traditional disaster recovery / business continuity plan).
  • (For large enterprises) Pre-buying web conferencing credits to help your organization communicate more effectively during a pandemic.
  • Identifying key / 'mission-critical' employees and ensuring they have broadband connections -- and consider whether they need redundant connectivity, such as maintaining both DSL and Cable broadband connections.

Granted, your IT infrastructure is only a small portion of the problem a pandemic could bring. But it's critical to today's core requirement to communicate with others in the world, and I think it's a good idea to think through this sort of thing and consider how you might prepare.

What do you think? Does this kind of thinking lead to over-reacting "Doomsday" kinds of panic, or is it "wake up and smell the coffee" good advice?