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Blackout survival a matter of planning, testing

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Despite early warnings, the ongoing rolling blackouts have caught South Africa’s business community by surprise. Even companies that have business continuity plans in place have been caught napping and may be facing a serious economic downturn as the situation worsens. 

“We are all used to minor crises, such as Gautrain blasting and municipal workers cutting through Telkom or Eskom cables,” says Allen Smith, MD of ContinuitySA. "And most major corporations have backup locations ready for when this happens. We are not used to shorter breaks of two or three hours, sometimes twice a day. You can’t invoke an emergency response for two hours, twice a day; you would get no work done.”
While corporate governance regulations have forced financial institutions to be ready for almost anything, the real victims of this crisis are companies in the manufacturing, mining and smaller concerns. They are being devastated by these outages and there is not only the threat of financial ruin, but also tremendous job losses.
“There is no macro solution to these problems in sight, so companies are going to have to deal with the problem themselves if they want to survive,” adds Smith. “Business leaders need to be creative in refining their continuity plans to the current situation and devising innovative solutions.”
They will also have to regularly run different testing scenarios to try to cater for all eventualities. Part of being creative is thinking past the immediate effect the blackouts will have on your company. For example, could the fact that a key supplier is down have a worse impact on your business than a blackout in your factory or office?
And what about the HR factor? Businesses must implement flexibility in their HR policies by allowing “strange” working hours and locations. It could also mean employees need to be flexible and catch up their missed work after hours. This will not be a popular decision, but it could mean protecting people’s jobs and the future of the company.
When it comes to infrastructure planning, being creative means giving careful consideration to any single points of failure in the company. A company may have a generator, but what if a component of the system fails and the supplier has no spares. Perhaps companies should look at an additional budget to stock emergency spare parts.
Smith advises against a business continuity plan specifically designed to deal with the power crisis, however. Multiple plans for different events will simply cause confusion, be difficult to keep updated, and be impossible to test effectively.
“Given the unreliable timing and duration of the blackouts, rather test a more generic plan using power outage as the disaster scenario is more important than ever today.
“And, finally, perhaps this would be a good time for forward planners to seriously consider making their companies green. Using one product that consumes less power is irrelevant, but using multiple environmentally friendly products across the board can provide a company with the ability to grow while reducing or at least maintaining its current power footprint.
“An effective business continuity plan is more critical than ever in South Africa today and will be for the next few years,” adds Smith. “Even if the current crisis is resolved, there will be other infrastructure problems that will plunge companies into crisis mode in future that will need fast and effective action.”