Business Continuity Learning - Where do you start?

Posted on 1 September

Reflecting on the theme for this year's BCI Education Month, 'Discover Business Continuity & Resilience’, Charlie looks at how newcomers to the profession can learn from the experience of others and gain the knowledge to succeed in their role.

Business continuity is not a profession you can learn out of a book. The BCI quite rightly describes it as an art and a science. I think it errs more on the side of art than science. If you are an engineer and you do not do your calculations correctly, the building you have designed is likely to fall down. If the business continuity plans you write are flawed, they may never be used. On the other hand, your plans may work as a result of the circumstance you originally wrote them for changing slightly. My analogy for the BC professional starting out is that it is the same as an apprenticeship. Yes, you need to do theory training and go on your CBCI course and the advanced courses after that, but you also need to practice and try ideas out, as well as adopting the theory you have learned into your own organisation and circumstances. So, how do you get the experience and knowledge to carry out your role?

As part of being an apprentice, you need to learn from other people’s experience. This could be from formal learning, using documents such as the Good Practice Guidelines 2013, as well as from the experience of others. As business continuity incidents don’t happen that often, most business continuity managers have a limited experience of managing real incidents, so you have to build that learning from the experience of others. 

When I started in emergency planning in the water industry, Anglian Water, who I was working for at the time, had no plans for dealing with a lack of water, contaminated water and sewage flooding incidents. My predecessor had been planning for civil defence and how the company could produce 10 litres of water a head for the 10% of the population which was going to be left, after a nuclear strike on the UK! The first thing I did was identify who had the best plans in the industry and ask them to share their expertise. In my experience, it is very rare for someone to take a detailed interest in the work we do, so when I went to other emergency planners, they were delighted to share what they did and how they did it. Four years later, having improved on their plans, my plans were acknowledged as being the best in the industry by Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. I was then happy to share my plans with others new to the profession.

We all need to learn from real incidents, and training and seminars are an ideal way to learn from the mistakes and successes of others (usually the former). When I mention ‘lessons learned’ to my colleague Jacqui Semple, who is Resilience Manager at Angus Council, she always reminds me that it is ‘lessons identified’, as we often fail to learn and repeat the same mistakes again and again. A classic case was the report from the Kings Cross Underground fire in London in 1987, when the key learning point was that emergency crews had great difficulty in communicating underground in the underground tunnels and station. When the London bombings occurred in 2007, the exact same recommendation was made in the report. Lesson identified, but not learned.

On the other hand, you can see from the response by the American Government to the Hurricane Harvey and the Houston flooding that lots of lessons from Katrina have been learned. The National Guard was deployed early, FEMA was ready, conference rest centres were manned and well provisioned and the President quickly visited the scene. We are capable of learning from incidents, but we have to work to make sure that the learning is translated into action at the next incident.

I think we have a duty to ensure that we learn from responses to events, by attending training and learning from the tutor’s experience, as well as seminars and forums such as the BCI World Conference and local forums and read incident reports as they are published. In an incident, we should be advising managers at all levels on our organisation’s response and we can only do so if we have learned from others what works and doesn’t.  A poor way to learn is to make all the same mistakes, as others so we as business continuity people have to spend a reasonable amount of our like keeping our skills up-to-date and learning from each other.

We should all take advantage of BCI Education Month to attend training, webinars or even read a business continuity book report or two!