Ask the IT Consultant

Nov 24 2009   11:00PM GMT

Preparing IT for Flu Epidemics


Question: Are there ways we can prepare for a large percentage of our technical support staff out with H1N1 flu?

With the heightened interest in how to respond to the H1N1 pandemic, every organization should be considering how to manage production support operations in the face of high absenteeism rates that could exceed 30%. Because the illness often hits suddenly, staff members could be sick or home caring for a family member and unable to work. Temporarily losing key individuals, such as system administrators and DBAs, can be traumatic without proper planning and redundancy. A good response plan should focus on assuring that necessary skill sets are available when needed. The following suggested approach is a good start towards making sure you are covered:

  • Identify the critical functions and performance timeframe. This information may have already been gathered as part of a business impact analysis. If not, draw up a simple list of the functions or tasks and how time critical they are.
  • List the skills and knowledge required to perform critical functions and the staff that possesses them. These might include UNIX administration or knowledge of a custom finance application. Management and the operational staff will know.
  • Identify the primary and secondary staff members who can provide backup for each task or skill. In particular, identify critical skills that are possessed by only one staff member. Gaps such as these are the biggest risks.
  • Develop a plan for backfilling those critical skills. This may include documenting procedures and training other staff members or locating an outside resource to provide the skill on a temporary basis.
  • Practice running operations using backup staff and documentation. This validates the ability of the backup staff to perform the tasks and also provides on-the-job training and job enrichment opportunities
  • Plan for working at home (WAH). In many organizations, technical staff members are already required to be available 7×24, so the mechanisms are in place.
  • Develop a contingency plan for reducing workload when absenteeism is high. Discuss with senior management the possibility of performing only minimal system changes and delaying major deployments to reduce risk and maintain system stability. Given the possible business implications of such a plan, buy-in from all stakeholders is essential. Define conditions and triggers for putting the plan in action.

Having to deliver services without a full staff is a situation that every organization encounters sooner or later. It can be triggered by events other than a flu pandemic. Preparing for it will make your organization more resilient and provide unexpected benefits.

About the Author

John McWilliams, JH McWilliams & Associates, Business Continuity Consultants

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