Heads in the Sand: IT isn't ready for the bird flu

If there's a bird flu pandemic, IT will be critical to business continuity. So why haven't more organizations started planning?

Monday morning, 9 a.m. The CEO calls you into an executive meeting as word comes that a full-blown H5N1 avian influenza pandemic is spreading rapidly from central Asia. Your job: Keep mission-critical IT systems working despite staff absenteeism rates that could reach 40% at the height of the pandemic, which is expected to run its course over a period of six to eight weeks.

Supply chain disruptions are expected as countries close their borders, so you can’t count on spare parts. With emergency travel restrictions in effect, you can forget about moving staffers between global locations to cope with labor shortages. You also need to enable remote access for an unprecedented number of employees who will either be out sick, caring for ill family members or afraid to come to the office. You have weeks, possibly just days, before the outbreak overtakes one of your major data centers.

Are You Ready?

For many businesses, the answer is probably no.

Like many small and midsize companies, Cleveland-based Kichler Lighting has yet to start business continuity planning. “Pandemic or otherwise, we have no plan or structure, nor the thought process, to address it,” says CIO John Schindler, adding that he’d like to make it a higher priority.

Companies like Kichler are the norm, not the exception, says Stephen Ross, national leader of the business continuity management practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP in New York. “The vast majority of organizations have not done anything,” he says. Even large companies are playing catch-up. In a Deloitte survey of 163 large companies conducted last month, 48% of respondents said their companies haven’t adequately prepared for a pandemic. That’s 14 percentage points better than the same survey the previous year. But, Ross adds, “while many large companies have begun their pandemic planning efforts, there’s still a significantly large number that have not.”

Why such inaction? A major pandemic hasn’t occurred in years, and the probability of an outbreak this year can’t be predicted with certainty. That may lull businesses into a false sense of security, but the potential for catastrophic losses makes planning vital, say pandemic experts and business continuity planners. “The impact of this is so high that the risk rating tells you this must be a priority,” says Don Ainslie, global security officer at Deloitte.

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