Sunday 18 April 2010

Volcanic Fallout: How Did Your Company Shape Up?

Ongoing air travel and transport chaos in Europe caused by the size of the ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano has brought the fragility of our express/last-minute/on-demand civilisation into sharp focus and demonstrated just how at-risk our way of life is from natural disaster or catastrophe. It used to be called Act of God. Despite the minimal risk to human life on the mainland of Europe, this event still qualifies as a disaster because of the disruption and the knock-on effects worldwide.

This is not the place to try and sort out the huge problems piling up for Kenyan farmers for example, but we can look at the day-to-day running of our companies - the flow of information within the company and that flow's relationship with the movement and physical interaction of personnel within the company and with customers and clients.

In other words, we should be asking ourselves, "How did we, or how are we shaping up?" in the face of these problems.

This is not a new idea of course. Since the beginning of the Digital Age people have been looking at ways to wire up their businesses better and find ways to make the journeys of company personnel less and less necessary. Every disaster, whether it be local or global, has (or should have) inspired companies affected to re-examine their modus operandi. Unfortunately however, human nature being what it is, good intentions are liable to be forgotten in prolonged times of comfort and relatively easy mass travel. We get sloppy.

The European Volcanic Ash Cloud Disaster has had a very specific victim: jet air transport. Hopefully nobody is dying. Nobody is being made homeless. Or starving. And all telecoms are working normally. But it is beyond our control.

However, one of the things a company can actually control is the movement of its employees and consider whether disrupted journeys were really necessary in the first place. Clearly many journeys are necessary - I don't want to suggest anyone goes the way attempted by George Clooney's character's company in the rather disturbing film Up In The Air. For those unfamiliar with the plot, George Clooney plays a professional 'executioner' working for a company which is employed by other companies to come in and physically make all the redundancies. The result is that George Clooney spends most of his life in the air between appointments to downsize businesses. One of the central themes of the movie is his employer's attempts to do the whole thing by video link from head office, so doing away with George Clooney's travel and the personal and physical face-to-face meeting with the about-to-be-jobless. The scheme is a disaster, and the value of the genuine face-to-face meeting in such trying circumstances is proved.

So any George Clooney characters caught up in the Volcanic Ash Disaster will just have to get on with it the best they can and go to ground until it all blows over. Similarly the likes of the trade exhibition planned months before will just have to be cancelled. And on the customer side I am assuming that you have placed warnings about despatch and delivery times on e-commerce operations you may run.

But what businesses can do is check and overhaul their existing internal online systems and work out which areas could or should be done better.

Some questions:

Does your company have an Intranet?

If so, does it really work properly, and do your employees really use it to its potential? Or is it only used by a few geeky types at head office?

Are you cloud-computing? (Perhaps an unfortunate term under the circumstances). Are your employees able to work effectively from home, a hotel room or the hotspot in an airport?

Do you use Skype for Business?

Do you use Yammer?

Some other internal instant messaging service?

Was your cancelled international business meeting in Frankfurt on 19 April re-arranged with online white boards, screen and file sharing and video? If not, why not?

Do you do most of your in-house training online? (See our image at right).

Now clearly some of these questions cover similar ground and some won't be relevant to particular businesses. But can you put your hand on your heart and say that your company does the best possible job with the tools available online to minimise disruption inside your business in the face of a disaster preventing travel?


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