Many years ago when working with a University, a history academic asked me a question along the lines of, “Why do we need business continuity now? The world has got on fine for years without it.”
On the face of it, the statement seems logical. Trade had existed for several thousand years without a BIA or crisis management plan in sight. Why do we need a formal approach to continuity and resilience now? Is it a business fad? Is it some sort of unnecessary management discipline, which is self-important and self-generating?
The immediate answer that comes to mind is that we need business continuity and business resilience now as organisations and their processes are far more complex now than they were even thirty or forty years ago. The advent of information and communications technology (with the continual improvements that are being made in this field) means that every organisation is able to achieve things that could only be dreamt of decades ago. These achievements comes at a price however, as the complexity of modern organisations brings with it a fragility. Supply lines can stretch around the globe. ICT systems can have expectations on them to never fail, even for a few minutes. The ease of sourcing goods and services from multiple suppliers means that if your organisation fails to continually supply, even the oldest and most loyal customers may start to drift away quickly with a few clicks of a mouse.
This is a valid answer to “why do we need business continuity now?” What about the past?
Let’s examine one significant and well documented event in the history of Britain. On the night of 2nd September 1666, a fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, London. Crucially, it was not spotted and extinguished while it was the size of a small household fire. Almost all of the buildings in the capital were made of wood, and the wood was dry after a hot summer. There was no city planning as we would recognise it. Streets were narrow and wooden buildings overhung street level, closing the distance between one another, assisting the spread of fire. Add to this the fact that there was no fire service at that time and the means of fire-fighting were limited to buckets of water and hooks to bring buildings down to create fire breaks. With a prevailing wind the fire spread until it finally burnt itself out three days later. 12,000 homes and 87 parish churches were destroyed.
The historical interpretation of what followed is cast in a very positive light. London was redeveloped with broader streets and pavements, improving sanitary conditions and reducing the risk of plague spreading (which was a perennial disease of the time). St Paul’s Cathedral wad rebuilt as the great landmark of the London skyline we know today. The crowning glory of positivity is that for all the devastation, less than 10 people are recorded to have died in the fire.
Did London really get away so lightly? Was it all really so rosy?
Pudding Lane, where the fire started was near the river and close to several warehouses. Some of the assorted goods within these would have helped the fire spread. Barrels of brandy, barrels of pitch, piles of wood and bundles of rope. The stock going up in smoke in each warehouse would have represented the ruin of many of the traders and businessmen that owned them, not to mention the warehouse owners. Traders and businessmen would be doubly impacted if their shops or offices were in the affected area of the city itself. Many would have lost their markets also as approximately 100,000 people were left homeless following the fire. Whilst less than 10 people died in the fire itself, we do not know how many of these remained homeless during the following winter and how many died during the winter from cold, hunger or disease. We do know that it took about 50 years to completely rebuild London, so the fire would have affected an entire generation of Londoners.
From a business continuity point of view, the impact on businesses and families based within the affected area would have been cataclysmic. The businesses affected would probably not have had the means to respond, the problem was just too big.
I suggest the answer as to why we never had formal business continuity and business resilience in the past is not that we didn’t need it, but rather than we have not had the means to effectively provide it. We now live in an age where we can make preparations and decisions to protect ourselves against unforeseen events. The traders and businessmen of 17th century London were not as fortunate.
Perhaps the resounding business continuity success of the Great Fire were the positive communications delivered by the English establishment and crown. The voice of displaced Londoners and bankrupt traders has been lost and forgotten.
David Davies MBCI is a BCM Assurance Consultant at Phoenix.