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Could (un)natural disaster interrupt your business?

Cast your mind back to April 2010 when an Icelandic volcano with a name no one could pronounce threw much of the world into chaos.  The eruptions of Eyjafjoell effectively shut down all air travel throughout Western Europe and created a knock-on effect that played havoc with flight schedules across the globe.

The interruption to business was costly and extensive. Even half a world away in Australia, it was reported that mining and resources giant, Rio Tinto Limited, would have to delay its annual general meeting by over a month because the directors couldn’t find a way back from London in time. Can you imagine the disruption to the company, directors, shareholders and other stakeholders? It must have been significant because shortly thereafter, the CIO reported that video technology would be used to mitigate future risk.

Ever since September 2001 businesses have been sharply aware of the need to maintain an effective disaster recovery strategy. Along the way we’ve had plenty of reminders thanks to natural disasters such as floods, fires and cyclones. Yet despite the attention and the millions of dollars in planning and infrastructure, there are many businesses today that haven’t made allowance for staff or their executive leaders to engage in the most effective means of  communication possible right at the time when it is most needed.

More than just a way to reduce travel

Face-to-face (or should that be screen-to-screen?) video conference conversations resonate. They connect people in ways that phone and email can’t compete with because video conferencing allows participants to experience the communication nuances including facial expressions and body language.  These subtleties make video conferencing as close to an in-person conversation as possible.  As a result participants typically feel more familiar, engaged  and open, and the conversations are more effective. It’s an important aspect of the technology that has been forgotten in the sales spiels of recent years.

For some time now the video conferencing industry has focused on selling systems as a means of cutting corporate travel. After all, it gives a quantifiable justification and, if the sales person can find an organisation with a large enough travel budget, it’s an argument sure to make a great impression.  However, the reality is that while video conferencing might reduce some travel, the technology will never completely replace the need to personally attend a large number of internal and external meetings.

And it’s this need that is the weak spot in many of even the best planned disaster recovery strategies because any reliance on travel places an organisation at the mercy of its travel agents, airlines and other related suppliers.

How is your business faring?

According to a July 2010 study conducted by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, the air corridor between Sydney and Melbourne is the fourth busiest air travel route in the world. Every month more than 780,000 people fly between the two cities; The vast majority of them travel for business reasons.  The same study notes that the twelfth busiest air route is between Sydney and Brisbane.  Must of east coast Australian business, it seems, is structured around air travel between our major cities.

So what is the cost to local business when smoke from a volcano drifts over Australian air routes forcing flight changes?  Or, as is happening today, industrial relations battles between the country’s largest airline and its staff cause intermittent strikes, resulting in flight cancellations with virtually no notice?  The effects are beginning to mount.

It’s different today

Once upon a time no amount of planning would have allowed me any control over the business impact of a natural disaster, an airline strike or similar disruptive event.  I would have had to make allowances for the inconvenience and carry on as best as possible given the circumstances.  Delays in business outcomes would have been regrettable but unavoidable. Hopefully my customers or business partners would have accepted this.

In the last 18 months however, video conferencing technology has taken some giant leaps, maturing to a point where it has become accessible even for small to medium businesses. The cost of systems such as LifeSize’s ClearSea and the cost of the devices to run them have come down. This means that video conferencing is no longer solely the domain of large enterprises.  Small to medium businesses are setting up systems using tablets rather than the more expensive desktop computers and laptops, or they are allowing staff to use their own mobile devices to access the company video conferencing system.  It’s completely feasible to set up a system that caters for communication with internal staff as well as for customers and business partners.

Sure, I’ll continue to travel when I need to (as soon as the airlines sort out their bickering).  But it won’t be often because with the benefit of video conferencing, I’ll also have the technology and flexibility to meet with my customers and team face-to-face, according to my schedule and not one that is dictated to me by others.

– Tim Fulton is ANZ Managing Director of LifeSize Communications

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