Before the Disaster

Why focus on disaster recovery, when effective business continuity management could keep recovery to a minimum?

On January 17, 1994, the ground surrounding Northridge, California shook for 15 seconds, leaving 51 dead and over $44 billion in damage. Cleaning up after that disaster involved more than personal and physical disaster recovery, as any business in the vicinity would confirm: In a mere 15 seconds, the business continuity of untold numbers of establishments in Southern California had been seriously disrupted and damaged.

Yet, earthquakes and acts of nature are not the only disasters lying in wait for the IT folks who have to pull things back together. To put it simply, bad things happen: You’ve organized a trip to a key vendor and most of the institution’s senior management are on a charter plane when severe icing forces a desperate emergency landing. Or…A hazardous substance leak forces immediate evacuation of the data center rendering your carefully planned, graceful shutdown procedures useless. Or… You inherit a mission-critical financial system running on 20-year-old hardware for which repair parts are no longer available and software is no longer supported. Or…

Disaster Recovery vs. Business Continuity

“And God said to Noah…make thee an ark of gopher wood…two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee…” Genesis 6:13-19.

People are often confused about the difference between disaster recovery and business continuity management (BCM). Yet, while disaster recovery is the act of recovering from a disaster, BCM is a broader term that includes anticipating and planning for bad things, as well as the actual disaster recovery process. Let’s put it this way: After the flood, Noah was practicing disaster recovery; before the flood, he was practicing business continuity management. Basically, business continuity management attempts to answer two questions: a) What can go wrong? And b) How can an institution reasonably prepare to minimize the impact?

Fortunately, higher education is an intrinsically resilient institution. The success of our endeavor—education and research—is measured over years, decades, or even longer. Fortunately, too, in the event of a disaster, relatively few of our systems require remediation within hours or days, vastly simplifying the task of business recovery. As result, the elaborate (and expensive) BCM methodologies developed for the corporate sector are not entirely applicable. The model outlined here is a simplification of several traditional BCM methodologies and is tailored to the needs of higher education.

BCM for Higher Ed
The model is an ongoing process: After the basic four steps are completed, they are repeated, because the process must be continuously adjusted to adapt to changes in the environment. The model also includes centralized management. Finally, the complete process must be clearly and openly communicated to the entire institutional community.

1—Initiate and Organize the Project

This first step is the most difficult and important. As it currently stands in higher education business continuity, project initiation and organization are usually handled in an ad hoc fashion, and segmented into departmental silos. The IT unit worries about backup power supplies, and campus police administrators worry about the locks on the doors. Regrettably, no one tries to answer the basic questions: What can go wrong? How can our institution reasonably prepare to minimize the impact, from an institution-wide perspective?

A campuswide team must be created to guide the project; no one unit has sufficient knowledge of the institution’s operation to lead the project alone. Clear lines of command and responsibility must be established, and the team (including a project manager) must be given the training and clout to do the job. Finally, senior management must believe that a comprehensive, institution-wide approach to BCM is important.

2—Identify and Assess Risk and Vulnerability
The second step comprises the process of identifying events that can harm the institution, the probability of the event occurring, and the event’s direct impact on the institution. These events include things such as natural disasters, loss of key personnel through death or illness, terrorist attacks, computer hardware and software failures, and criminal damage. The resulting matrix forms the basis for further planning.

3—Business Impact Analysis and Risk Reduction Strategies

This third step g'es beyond identifying an events-direct result and considers how multiple events interact in a synergistic fashion to impact the institution. For example, if the financial aid system g'es down, what is the long-term impact on the institution’s reputation and student recruitment? What systems are critical to the institution’s operation, and in what time frame?

Everyone likes to believe that his function is essential, but in reality, relatively few things are so essential that they cannot be handled within the institution’s normal operational procedures. Common sense is required in determining what is and isn’t time-critical. For instance, on a residential campus, online course management systems (e.g., Blackboard) can be replaced by whiteboards and class lectures. On the other hand, if most of the institution’s students are distance learners, the system becomes more time-critical.

An integral part of this step is to devise and implement strategies to reduce risk where it makes financial sense. For instance, emergency power and redundant computer and network equipment may make sense for life-safety systems, but not for classroom instructional systems. The key to these decisions is an honest assessment of probability and net impact.

4—Business Recovery Planning and Testing

This step addresses what happens if after reducing the risks, bad things still happen. For example, if an explosion destroys the campus computing center, is there an off-site facility that includes the hardware, software, and data to continue providing critical IT functions? If there is a natural disaster, how will key employees get to work? Will they be secure in leaving their families? Many of the plans and strategies developed in this phase will have multiple applications. For example, plans for evacuation of portions of the campus (designed for the event of a bomb threat) also could be used in a natural disaster. Finally, all of the plans and strategies need to be regularly tested to the extent possible.

There’s no getting around it: Business continuity management is neither easy nor cheap. But in an increasingly complex world driven by intertwined systems, it is essential.
Doug Gale is president of Information Technology Associates, LLC (, an IT consultancy
specializing in higher education.

It's not just for admission recruiting.

Could your campus business continue?

Take this quick quiz to find out if you’re “four-step” prepared.
Check all boxes applicable.

Step One: Project Initiation and Organization

D'es business continuity management (BCM) have the support of
senior management?
Is there a clear line of command and responsibility?
Have you created a multi-disciplinary team to guide the project?
D'es the team have the clout and skills to get the job done?
Has the project been openly and comprehensively articulated to the
entire community?

Step Two: Risk and Vulnerability Identification
and Assessment

Have you systematically identified events that could harm the institution?
What is the probability of these events occurring?
What would result from these events if they were to occur?

Step Three: Business Impact Analysis and Risk Reduction Strategies

Have you analyzed how events and combinations of events would impact
your institution?
Have you determined which systems are truly critical and in what time frame?
Have you devised and implemented strategies to reduce risks wherever it is cost-effective?

Step Four: Business Recovery Planning and Testing

Have you developed plans and strategies to recover from damaging events?
Do you have a crisis management plan in place?
Are these plans and strategies well documented and publicized?
Have they been tested?

It's not just for admission recruiting...

Don’t reinvent the wheel

BCM is complicated, and only the foolish take on the task without reviewing the lessons learned by others. Head to these resources to learn more:

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