Every business depends on two key assets these days?technology and people. When things go wrong, the ability to keep people in touch is absolutely vital, says LaMont Eanes, Vice President of Global Infrastructure and Operations, BT Conferencing.

Today, any organisation that does not have a business continuity plan in place could face severe repercussions. Anyone can have their schedule disrupted by the weather; heavy snows can close roads, floods can sweep away railway lines and airports can be closed by fog. Equally businesses can be severely affected by fires, burglaries and local power failures, etc.

The key is to equip businesses so that they can keep running. Most workers must interact and collaborate with a wide group of dispersed colleagues, partners and customers. If those groups are unable to interact with each other, the consequences can be felt throughout the enterprise?and might well impact customer satisfaction and the company’s bottom line.

One key way to ensure superior business continuity is to have a clear, well designed plan in place for keeping communications going, not just when an event occurs but also throughout its duration. In the face of any interruption to normal business, employees need to receive information about the event, and how they are to continue operating. These days there are a raft of modern communications aids that can keep the show on the road.

Real-time conferencing and collaboration services can go a long way towards keeping your business in operation when things stop going to plan. Meetings can still go ahead and deliver productive results, and any location can be commandeered and put to work as an office. Provided your business has taken care to replicate databases and arrange back-up locations to take over the running of any IT systems that get caught up in the troubles, businesses can pretty much carry on as normal.

The pros of audio and video conferencing

Conferencing has taken huge steps forward in recent years. Gartner has described conferencing as a ‘birthright’ application for high-performance workplaces and it is easy to see why. The ability to talk and share video, slide presentations and data over distance has enabled people to collaborate as effectively as they can face-to-face. Almost all organisations have some form of audio conferencing in place, yet many do not leverage it as part of their business continuity plans. In fact, it can be a huge benefit during any business interruption, as calls are easy and quick to organise.

Employees can simply dial into a pre-set phone number using a landline or mobile phone, enter a pass code and immediately get updates on events affecting the business. Via conference call employees can get information live from managers and co-workers, or they can access pre-recorded messages on an as-needed basis. Audio conferencing can also enable departments or smaller project teams to meet and collaborate, even if those groups are disrupted and no longer working from their usual locations.

A growing number of people often maintain ‘virtual’ meeting rooms which they can dial into whenever they like?ideal for dispersed workforces?and coupled with the latest technology, it can now be a rich experience. Using tools such as Microsoft Live Meeting with an audio conference, people can see and work on documents while they speak as if gathered around one PC.

During times of disruption, employees must know that although they may not be located in the same place as usual, their business processes need not change. This is especially important for employees who may not normally be part of a virtual team and are not used to working together or supporting customers in a remote fashion. For these employees especially, it is crucial that they are able to see and interact with one another as they normally would.

Video conferencing is a critical technology for business continuity for the simple reason that it enables face-to-face meetings even when people cannot physically be in the same location. Being able to see the people you are meeting with is always beneficial, but it is vital in times of disruption. It is especially true for employees who normally work in the same location as their managers and co-workers. Reducing the time these employees require to get back up to speed and back to business can drive productivity and enable them to respond to customer needs quickly and effectively.

Conferencing via technology is fast becoming both financial and eco friendly substitutes for business travel. The recent run up of energy prices further serves as catalyst for smart business to adopt. These business realities become all the more acute in the event of a business disruption. Video conferencing can be a business saver when travel is restricted. Meetings with clients and prospects that were supposed to be conducted in person can be conducted via video conference instead with no loss of productivity or presence. In addition, the visual impact of video conferencing can also potentially help in resolving or trouble shooting issues in real time.

Taking control in a crisis

Conferencing will be one of a number of measures designed to protect a business. But whatever tools are chosen, businesses still need to plan to make sure that the right steps are taken should disaster strike. This can be defined as a ‘Command and Control’ hierarchy within the company. A crude but accurate analogy is the ‘Captain’s Chair’ on Star Trek. Whoever sat in the Chair had control of the ship and its crew. Usually, of course Captain Kirk was in charge, but other crew members were trained and ready to take over at a moment’s notice.

Companies need a similar capability. Their boards set policies and goals, but they leave others in charge of delivery and the immediate response to threats and incidents. Typically these people have an operational background?experience of the IT systems, networks and business processes within the organisation and of how physical assets are deployed. The protocols involved in their work need to be clearly spelt out and documented, along with the conference call telephone numbers and pass codes to be used in an emergency. It is also important to have a ‘recorder’ function as part of the crisis management routine can be reviewed once they’re over to ensure that lessons are learned for the future.

Conferencing services are a vital part of business survival because they ensure people?even those who are thousands of miles apart?can get together almost immediately, regardless of where they have to work.