The Retro Revolution:  Why Manual Workarounds  Are a BC Must 

Because technology is vulnerable to disruption—and disruptions are on the rise—every organization should devise manual workarounds for its critical business processes.  

An Eye-Opening Exercise 

Earlier this week I did a two-hour mock disaster exercise with a healthcare client. The scenario was, “A regional internet outage has occurred; you have no internet access to the outside world. Continue operating your critical business operations.”  

This was an organization that had worked hard on being prepared for downtimes, but the result was still somewhat chaotic. 

The client had manual workarounds for their critical business processes, but the exercise revealed that many workarounds had not been fully integrated with those of other departments or critical suppliers and therefore didn’t work or could be problematic. 

Some of their biggest problems involved obtaining critically important third-party items, including drugs and food. It turned out that some of the institution’s critical suppliers required advance or immediate payment for goods. With the external internet down across the region, the client was unable to use their bank’s ACH system to make electronic payments. They lacked a viable manual workaround for making payments. The upshot was, if this had happened for real, they would have been unable to obtain many critically needed products. 

A member of the staff told me that the exercise revealed they couldn’t have gone 12 hours without Internet access before they would have been forced to stop admitting new patients.   

Workarounds Are More Important Than Ever 

This isn’t just an issue for that client or for the healthcare industry. It’s relevant for financial services, consumer businesses, manufacturing—everyone. 

It’s widely assumed that technology has made manual processes obsolete. However, organizations can’t afford to completely lose their ability to conduct their critical processes manually. It’s vital that they retain it as a backup. And if they have lost it, they need to rebuild it. 

Ten or fifteen years ago, we all thought manual workaround procedures were going away. However, we’re finding that with ransomware, network outages, and all the rest of our contemporary challenges, the need to have documented, tested manual workaround procedures is greater than ever. 

The reliance and dependence on technology today is beyond belief. Think of the third-party and cloud-based systems your organization relies on. Now imagine you’re unable to use them for a period of time. It could be three hours. It could be three days. How well would you get along with them?  

The retro revolution in business continuity is about documenting, practicing, and/or rebuilding the ability to conduct critical business processes manually. 

Manual workarounds are a BC must. 

A lot of clients give  us an “are you serious?” look when we suggest they develop manual workarounds for their critical business processes. I wish them the best. Meanwhile, the news brings stories every day of network outages and ransomware attacks that prevent companies from using their automated systems for extended periods of time. 

The High Cost of Lacking Workarounds 

Most organizations underestimate the potential impact of an outage for which they do not have adequate manual workarounds.  

Even in the best-case scenario, having to resort to manual workarounds is costly. For every day in which data is logged manually (on Excel spreadsheets, for example), our past experience shows it can take three days to transfer that data to the automated system, once everything is running again. 

The costs of not being able to operate at all are typically much higher. In a healthcare environment, there will be critical patient care and safety impacts. Other types of organizations could face production and distribution impacts. Almost every type of organization is susceptible to brand, image, and reputation damage. Companies who lack manual workarounds coud miss SEC deadlines and face sanctions. 

How to Create a Workaround 

The easy part of devising manual workarounds is knowing which processes you need to develop backups for. Consult your business impact analysis. Your BIA already determined and prioritized your business processes in terms of their time sensitivity and criticality. We recommend focusing on those needed in the first 24 to 48 hours.  Those are the processes you need to figure out a way to perform without technology. 

After that, there are several challenges to be aware of in developing manual workarounds. Here are a few of them: 

  • Overall coordination of the manual workarounds. Coming up with a manual workaround for one process is relatively easy. Ensuring that multiple such workarounds function correctly simultaneously takes careful analysis and practice. 
  • Taking into account upstream and downstream dependencies. Workarounds don’t happen in a vacuum. Most depend on upstream inputs and are depended on by processes downstream. A successful package of workarounds reflects this reality. 
  • Penmanship. This one might seem funny but it can be a backbreaker. If hand-written records are illegible or lead to the eventual entering into the system of incorrect data, the problem is being made worse, not better. 
  • Cursive. Older folks take the ability to read and write cursive for granted. Younger ones might never have been taught it. Your manual workarounds might need rules governing the use of cursive writing. 
  • Getting manually logged data into the system when the outage is over. It’s great that a company was able to collect data manually. Putting it into the system once everything is working again is still likely to be a huge job. Your workaround procedure should cover how this will be tackled. 

Boosting Resilience in a Tumultuous World 

Today’s technology might be the best thing since sliced bread, but until ransomware and service outages are a thing of the past, every company should develop, document, and practice manual workarounds for its critical business processes.  

Not having such processes can turn an outage from an inconvenience into a disaster—one with safety, reputational, operational, legal, and regulatory impacts, among others. Having manual workarounds is one of the best ways to boost your organization’s resilience in our increasingly tumultuous world. 

Further Reading 

For more information on manual workarounds and other hot topics in BCM and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting: 

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