Virtual teams, disaster recovery and business continuity planning

In an article, “War, pestilence, natural disasters and telework”, Jack Nilles, co-founder and president of JALA , reports that virtual working has become a key tool for crisis management.


Examples of virtual working in crisis/disaster situations include:

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

In the face of this new pneumonia-like epidemic Hong Kong closed its schools and promoted teleworking.

The Gulf War

General Tommy Franks and the command staff of the US army oversaw the war from a base in Qatar via video conferencing and other virtual technologies.

The Santa Cruz Earthquake (1995)

As a result of the ability of teleworkers to keep on working in spite of the chaos the Governor of California issued an executive order requiring all "state agencies to include telecommuting in their disaster preparedness plans".

The Los Angeles Earthquake (1995)

Although the roads were disrupted for months the phone lines were only out for a few hours and most office teleworkers were able to continue operating almost 'business as usual'.

Telework and Telecommuting defined

Nilles defines Telework as:

ANY form of substitution of information technologies (telecommunications and computers) for work-related travel

and Telecommuting as:

That portion of teleworking that applies to the daily commute to and from work-a primary source of traffic congestion, air pollution and loss of productivity in urban areas.

The web now enables affordable crisis management infrastructures

All shapes and sizes of organisations need to think about the importance of web-based virtual working as a key element of their disaster recovery plans.

It used to be that "business continuity" was an area only major corporates and government departments could afford.

Today the internet has made “virtual business continuity infrastructures” much more affordable than they used to be - potentially within the reach of all sizes of organisation.

However these kinds of infrastructures capabilities need to be developed in advance of a crisis - there are two approaches you can use, “Build your Own” or “Buy in a Service”.

The first option involves adapting your existing intranet or password protected internet to serve as an operations base in a crisis. This kind of approach is advocated in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Use the Internet to Gain A Crisis-Management Edge .

The author reflects on September 11 in terms of the helpful role of the internet in the aftermath of the disaster and suggests practical tips in the areas of processes and procedures, records management and communications

Alternatively you can use one of the new generation of internet-based “Urgent Event Management Systems” such as Missionmode or CrisisCommander which provides facilities such as the ability to quickly send alerts to all devices and to create an online situation centre. These facilities are underpinned by a fully-hosted, web-based, secure, real-time communication and collaboration infrastructure.

Distributed intelligence, autonomy and excellent co-ordination are critical in a crisis

It is important to develop virtual/telework capabilities in staff as well as having the infrastructure.

Organisations should use their “business as usual” work in virtual project teams and virtual collaboration as a means of developing their capabilities to operate in an environment where the central facilities of the enterprise are unavailable or severely limited.

One metaphor for an organisational disaster is that the body of the organisation is no longer connected to the head or brain. To survive in this situation an entity needs fully distributed intelligence and autonomous operation of its remote parts.

A second metaphor is that the organisation has entered a critical intensive care zone hovering between existence and extinction and every single action has become business critical with no space for mistakes or mis-commmunication.

In both situations we can very effectively adapt the principles of natures teams particularly those action rules of bioteaming which support responsiveness and connectivity:

  1. Send out timely information

  2. Everyone must broadcast

  3. Act don't Ask (Permission Granted)

  4. Always On/Always Near

  5. Out-Team!

  6. Nurture the Network

So don’t wait till your crisis happens

The midst of a disaster or crisis is the absolute worst place to be piloting your capabilities to survive as a virtual enterprise!

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