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Lessons in Disaster

From Importance, to Plan

Following 9/11, the Campus Computing Project’s ( annual survey of higher education institutions folded three key questions on disaster recovery planning (DRP) into its laundry list of concerns for IT. The first was, “D'es your institution have a strategic plan for IT disaster recovery?” Little more than half (55.5%) of all institutions responding could answer “yes” in the 2004 survey, up only 2.5 points from the 2002 data. But roughly another third (32.3%) claimed to have plans in the works, leaving only 12.2% admitting to no planning at all.

A second DRP-relevant question was included in a rating of several elements of IT infrastructure. On a poor-to-excellent scale of 1 to 7, disaster recovery planning earned a respectable medium score of 4.4, but it still didn’t do as well as most other items. In the listing of 13 items rated, only eCommerce and the campus portal scored lower.

A look at the third query about disaster recovery may shed the most light on where we are relative to where we should be. In a section on “Web and Networking Issues,” a question probed how important disaster recovery is in discussions about and planning for networking on the institution’s campus. From “not important” to “very important,” (1 to 7) disaster recovery scored a 5.8—pretty high on the scale, considering that almost half the institutions responding to the survey didn’t have strategic DRP in place for IT. Will this sense of importance actually spawn strategic plans? We’re waiting for the Campus Computing 2005 data to be released, which might show more activity in disaster recovery planning for IT as an institutional priority. But with the punch packed by Katrina, the real change may be reflected in the 2006 survey.

A Case for Communications

There are few times when communications are more critical than in a disaster scenario. Calling hurricane Katrina a “study in online crisis management,” Ballardvale Research ( wanted to find out how US colleges and universities communicated with their constituencies regarding the disaster. One week after Katrina hit, the Massachusetts-based IT analyst firm reviewed the Web sites of the top 15 national universities plus the top 15 liberal arts colleges as identified by U.S. News & World Report. They found a range of approaches, which their analysts have categorized as standard, best, and worst practices.

While Ballardvale’s study reveals several different approaches taken by higher education institutions, one of the most striking differences is between those Web sites that simply “broadcast” information about Katrina and those also offering interactive elements like blogs and message boards—a big factor in setting the best practices apart from the standard. Ballardvale concluded that institutions should consider “breaking the normal Web site mold” in a time of crisis or disaster, and be ready to set up mini-sites and special blogs or other interactive forums. Another strong recommendation is to avoid the worst practice of ignoring or seeming mostly oblivious to disasters—whether they strike your institution directly or not. (To read the full report, go to

Worst Practices Standard Practices Best Practices
Viewpoint “Katrina didn’t affect us.” “We shouldn’t publicly discuss Katrina’s impact.” “We need to help all of our constituencies— students, faculty, staff, and alumni— deal with Katrina.”
Strategy View Katrina as not impacting the educational mission. Deal with Katrina within established processes and Web site design. Treat Katrina as a crisis that impacts the overall college community and urge people to think “outside the box.”
Process Standard Web site content and processes remain. Broadcast generated and received information. Employ interactive information gathering/receiving.
People No focus on mobilizing people. President & Office of Public Affairs issue statements. Many departments and constituencies are involved.
Technology No mention of Katrina, or a difficult-to-find hyperlink on the home page. A mention of Katrina on the home page and a Katrina mini-site. Blogs and message boards help constituents distribute information in real time.
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES used the Web in a variety of ways to communicate with their constituencies about Katrina. (From “Online Crisis Management: 30 Top Colleges/ Universities Respond to Katrina,” by Ballardvale Research. Used with permission.)
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