Friday, 21 February 2014

Never work with children or animals... or technology

The other day I attended a meeting of a local business continuity forum. It was a very well run, very interesting meeting – the latter despite the fact that one of the topics was business interruption insurance, living proof that any subject can be made interesting by an engaging speaker. There was, however, one small glitch in proceedings that I thought was worthy of note. Or that at least gave me an excuse to write a blog.

The second item on the agenda involved a live link-up, via Skype, to a presenter in some far flung, desolate location – Reading, I think. At the appropriate time, the chairman initiated the call. And then… nothing happened, apart from a deafening silence. The technology didn’t work. Now, before you say anything, yes, of course it had been tested beforehand. This was, after all, a group of consummate business continuity professionals. It had, however, been tested on the previous Friday afternoon, whereas the live event was on a Monday morning, when the volume of traffic on the network is, apparently, much greater. To the extent that there wasn’t enough room left in the pipe for a teeny weeny little Skype call.

After much umm-ing and ah-ing and “talk amongst yourselves”-ing, the organisers finally got it working – for a while at least, but then it failed again and they eventually had to resort to a somewhat Heath Robinson solution involving the loudspeaker on a mobile ‘phone next to a microphone connected to the room’s sound system. Which, I have to say, was a better sound quality than the original Skype solution. And so the meeting continued with no further hiccups.

The episode brought to mind a technology glitch at another seminar that I was at a while ago. This time I was presenting to an audience of 200-odd people (by which I mean approximately 200, as opposed to 200 odd people – although there were one or two there who fitted the description admirably). The venue was a concert hall with a huge stage about ten feet above the audience, who were seated around tables in an auditorium the size of a small country. Not at all daunting.

It came to my turn. I took a deep breath, walked up the steps to the stage, introduced myself, pressed the button on the remote control to fire up my slides and…nothing happened. There was a completely blank screen behind me and a couple of hundred people looking at me expectantly. Not even a whiteboard to fall back on. Oops! Time for Plan B. Which was to busk it for ten minutes while the techies scurried around poking things and unplugging and re-plugging things, having tried the universal solution of powering it off and on, which had no effect whatsoever. Eventually the screen came back on, I re-synched my blathering with the pretty pictures and all was well. It was a bit uncomfortable for a while but I got away with it. I even got a bit of a buzz from it in a masochistic sort of a way, although I was only too happy to take the applause and return to my seat at the end of it. And, before you ask, yes, of course it had been tested beforehand. I am, after all, a consummate business continuity professional!

Both incidents made me think about the huge reliance that we place on technology and the difficulties it can cause when it’s not there. But they also made me think that, as often as not, there are alternatives, whether they involve the use of other technologies or switching to manual processes – maybe even reverting back to the way we used to do it in the old days, before all the clever and sophisticated technology arrived to “help” us.

They reminded me of the importance of testing, and the fact that, to be really confident that things will work, testing should be as comparable to the real thing as we can possibly make it. Even then there are no guarantees, but if our testing isn’t realistic it can give us a completely false sense of security.

And they reinforced the point that, whether the solution is highly technical and whizzy or simple and old fashioned, we should always, always have a Plan B up our metaphorical sleeve. Because, as a certain Mr Murphy decreed long ago, whatever can go wrong almost certainly will.

Andy Osborne is the Consultancy Director at Acumen, and author of Practical Business Continuity Management.
You can follow him on Twitter and his blog or link up with him on Linked In.

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