Is Your Business Prepared for the Avian Flu?

Jan 24, 2019

The thought of a global virus like the avian flu affecting more than a quarter of the world’s population is an unpalatable, but not an impossible prospect. Such a pandemic would pose a very real and unprecedented threat to lives and livelihoods.

“The impact on human life could be catastrophic, but the potential economic impact to organizations across the world also cannot be ignored,” says Robert Dyson, Business Continuity Practice Lead in the United States for Accenture, the global management consulting firm.

A report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy. Meanwhile, the London Chamber of Commerce reported that only one in five businesses would survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu.

Of course, no one knows when or, indeed, if avian flu will transmute into a form that can be passed from human to human. Yet, awareness of the possibility is already roiling health organizations, governments and businesses throughout the world.

Most important, according to Dyson, organizations must ensure that business continuity considerations are embedded in their general operations.

“For businesses, anxiety levels should be rising fast,” says Dyson. “Companies would most likely face severe restrictions on international and possibly local travel, significant disruption to their supply chains as a result of increased inspections, and a potential general slow-down in business. This would be particularly true for companies in the travel and hospitality sector, but it has the potential to affect virtually every industry.”

Preparing for the worst

Businesses, says Dyson, need to be prepared for staffing issues during a pandemic. Remote working, while important, is only part of the solution. “If people are too sick to work, they will still be too sick to work at home,” he says. “In addition, school closures will force many employees to remain at home to look after children, and overwhelmed health systems will mean that many people diagnosed with the infection will have to be cared for at home, again limiting otherwise-healthy employees’ ability to work.”

Organizations should also consider identifying “skeleton” teams of key staff who would be the only ones to come to work in the event of a pandemic. Primary and backup teams for key activities should be identified and organized on a split-shift, split-site basis to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Implementing a change freeze on all systems development will allow IT development staff to be redeployed into support positions if required.

“[Another] effective way to maintain operations is to optimize the use of existing resources—particularly in the case of global companies, where scale and spread of operations can provide some protection,” says Dyson. “This includes making sure that methodology and approaches are consistent wherever the business operates, so that work can be transferred from one location to another while maintaining consistent standards and results.”

Many businesses—particularly in the financial sector—have already taken steps to ensure that an embedded approach to business continuity is a part of their operations. This requires detailed planning to ensure that skill sets and capacities are matched and that backup personnel can handle additional work while still carrying out their own.

Avoiding common problems

Compounding the difficulty of preparing for a possible pandemic, says Dyson, is the fact that many companies invest in business continuity only on a one-off project basis.

“This means that continuity is assigned to a particular team of managers, who conduct a review, make recommendations and—maybe—implement plans and solutions,” he says. “In this case, continuity fails to become an integral part of the organization and does not receive the attention and support it requires from senior management.”

To address the emerging threat of an avian flu pandemic, Dyson says that organizations must first assess the ability of existing plans to cope with a significant disruption to the workforce. Once any necessary updates have been made, an individual should be assigned to track developments with all emerging threats, and to determine any further plan updates that may be required.

“It is revealing to ask companies what they spend on business continuity,” says Dyson. “Often, the response will be that—in the absence of a specific project—little or nothing at all. However, data backup and storage, for example, are daily activities, and most businesses maintain a redundant network. These are all business continuity-related activities but are not often thought about in that way. To change this, senior management needs to move the issue of business continuity on to their permanent agenda. They must ensure that they can achieve an integrated view of all the activities and processes taking place within the business that relate to and support ‘business-as-usual’ operations in the face of unexpected and adverse events.”

A Preparation Checklist

Here is a checklist for businesses to consider in preparation of such an event. 

  1. Assess specific risk.
  2. Place a value on the disruption to particular processes and activities.
  3. Sort in terms of priority and investment in continuity the impact on high-value areas of business.
  4. Develop business continuity strategies that make the most of existing resources and locations and investigate how to take advantage of a global operations network.
  5. Ensure that business continuity plans assume at least 25 percent reduction in available workforce and liaise with local public bodies to identify appropriate response plans if a pandemic is announced.
  6. Deploy exercises and simulations of components within the business continuity plan to ensure plans will actually be effective.
  7. Think the unthinkable.