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Agile Business Continuity: Learning from the Recent Japan Tsunami and Earthquake

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Monday, April 11, 2011

The giant 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent devastating tsunami in Japan last month showed the world once again how even the best business continuity and disaster recovery plans can be laid to waste in a matter of minutes. Case in point: Although there were countless levels of fault tolerance incorporated into the daily operations and superstructure of the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, most of its six reactors suffered grave damage as a result of the earthquake and tsunami (at the time of this writing, brave engineers were heroically, and often quite desperately, attempting to bring the nuclear disaster that has been described as the worst since Chernobyl under control). Contingency plans to handle an earthquake and resulting tsunami of such epic proportions were simply not robust enough or were absent altogether. The layers of redundancy built into the physical architecture of each nuclear reactor at the Dai-ichi complex (in particular the cooling units, which were orders of magnitude more resilient than those of Chernobyl) were meant to safely handle any “worst case scenario” that might arise. There was just one problem: The cooling units could not achieve their normal state of operations if they were not supplied with constant power.

Incredibly, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami had knocked out both normal and backup power sources for the nuclear plant, crippling the functionality of the cooling systems, and thereby bringing the reactors to the brink of core meltdown. For a country as developed as Japan, this news came as a shock to much of the world. After all, Japan has some of the best public infrastructure in the world such as high-speed bullet trains, modern power generation facilities, and well maintained bridges, tunnels, and roads. Of all the countries in the first-world, it was ascertained that Japan, more than any other country, would make sure that their nuclear energy program was prepared for any natural disaster. But they overlooked the obvious and formulated their disaster plans with the false assumption that the power supplied to the nuclear plant would never be severed or interrupted. In hindsight, a few well placed (further inland) and highly secured industrial strength power generators -ones dedicated for emergency only- could have made a huge difference. If this simple detail had not been overlooked the initial cooling issues would not have been so catastrophic.

Despite a complex state-of-the-art tsunami alert system, large sections of Japan’s Northeast coast were subject to mass casualties, as even the best tsunami warning technology in the world could not outrun the apocalyptic deluge of the ocean’s flood waters. However, for those that residents that were able to survive, web-centric technology helped them better navigate and manage the crisis by letting them share information about their whereabouts with loved ones and better assess the available evacuation and recovery opportunities. New smart phone and web-based applications sprang up immediately. These hastily assembled communications solutions coupled with Japan’s strong internet backbone (which features a high level of redundancy nationwide) added tremendous value to the rescue and recovery process.

Before the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, the World Trade Center terror attacks in 2001 marked a radical change in perceptions about business continuity (BC) and disaster recovery plans. When the World Trade Center towers were attacked and fell, thousands of businesses were left “homeless” at the same time, with no access to critical data or personnel.  Operational continuity immediately stalled on an inter-business basis, across countless business sectors. Data processing systems of all types were rendered impotent or destroyed completely. In a stunning development that was ironic as it was tragic, even New York City’s new Emergency Operations Center was totally eradicated, crippling law enforcement’s ability to access or disseminate critical data that could save lives. The lack of solid foresight and in-depth contingency planning on the part of countless government agencies (those that are supposed to keep us out of harm’s way), was painfully exposed on that fateful day. As a result business leaders from all industries became acutely aware of the fundamental concepts and practices of business continuity.

Like the World Trade Center attack, the recent events in Japan have served as a real-life wake up call for those businesses and governments lucky enough to have not been direct victims of the catastrophe. Once again everybody is reminded of the randomness and unexpected by-products of natural and man-made disasters. Hopefully, when business continuity and disaster recovery is discussed in the future there will be more talk about borrowing from or directly applying some of the more visible precepts and concepts of business agility or nimble technology strategy. Robust disaster recovery and business continuity plans must reach far beyond what was acceptable a few short years ago. Organizations must strive to assemble a portfolio of loosely coupled and geographically dispersed physical assets which will provide “just in time” computing and communication platforms if they are to survive the disasters of the future. When the destruction to transportation and communications infrastructure is as damaging and widespread as it was in Sendai and the surrounding villages, the best hope for re-establishing some semblance of operational control often rests with agile technology components - physically distributed across the local and national geography- that can quickly be cobbled together and integrated with the existing incident command infrastructure.

No business venture will ever be able to make sure that every eventuality and threat to operational continuity has been sufficiently vetted and subsequently mitigated. Life is too complex; Mother Nature and human nature are too random and unpredictable; and large scale disasters can strike at any time, bringing with it physical (and psychological) impacts that have never before been addressed or assessed. However, watching history play out over the last ten years, I am convinced that governments and business entities need to drive their recovery and continuity plans from more of an agile perspective.

It is been estimated by various thought leaders in the business continuity space that 80% of all small to medium-sized businesses involved in a large scale disaster go out of business in 18 months or less. Nevertheless, investment in BC is often seen as a money pit, with no definable return on investment (ROI), because only in a true disaster situation will the investment in BC technologies and methodologies be evident. This is precisely what makes BC so confounding for senior management. Funds are provided to deal with an event that everybody hopes will never occur. But as we have seen recently on the world stage, what may seem like an expensive bundle of physical preparation, documentation, and drills may be what saves the business one day.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices—across all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide.. As a Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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