Preparing for disaster at BT

As the country’s dominant provider of communications infrastructure, BT is under no illusions about the integral role it plays in supporting the business continuity of UK Plc, and the implications this has for its own business continuity practices. As Justin Clark, a consultant in business continuity management at BT says: “BT has no such thing as ‘internal’. If we fail, everyone else is affected too, we’ll not be the only ones losing customers and revenue.”

This was illustrated in March 2004 when a fire in a BT tunnel in Manchester brought 130,000 lines down. The fire started in the early hours of a Monday morning and by Wednesday evening some 58,000 lines had still not been restored. Manchester council estimated the cost to local businesses at £4.5 million a day – a cost BT felt compelled to compensate.

Clearly sometimes even the best laid plans will fall down in the face of a disaster, but it is in BT’s best interests to ensure, from the point of view of its own business and also for the promotion of its brand as reliable, that these instances rarely occur.

Business continuity, Clark maintains, is about information not technology. The first step BT took was to identify mission-critical data and applications, then prioritise. It did this from the point of view of the customer, shareholder and employee and then built up a concept of ‘damage’ using these different views. For example, the BT brand would be harmed from a customer’s point of view if their phone line was unavailable, but an employee would care more about their health and safety in the workplace.

BT has an emergency planning and instant management team of over 100 – a ‘hit squad’ that can quickly reach to sites that have been damaged and offer advice. Any potentially hazardous situation within a BT building is to be reported to them by any employee, and part of each employee’s contract is to regularly renew their training in business continuity procedures.

“Experts kick-in well-defined and well-researched processes,” says Clark. “We pride ourselves in our internal knowledge. Where we have to be reliant on a certain supplier, we work closely with them.” He cites Cisco as an example: BT has more Cisco-trained engineers that Cisco itself.

By emphasising the importance of business continuity, BT has found out more about itself and its facilities. Clarke cites Kipling’s ‘six honest serving-men’, ‘What, Why, When, How, Where and Who’, as the ideal of self-knowledge. And knowing it has, for example, unused servers in Hong Kong means if there are problems in Sydney it can fall back on these.

Furthermore, strength in business continuity issues on BT’s part can have direct external benefits. An eight-man team of engineers went out to Aceh to help restore tsunami-hit Indonesian satellite services, and BT is also a member of the London Resilience Team, which aims to prevent a London equivalent of September 2001.

Before its privatisation, BT’s duty of care to every citizen was enshrined by law. That regulatory burden has now been lifted, but BT recognises its de facto responsibility for the nation’s telecommunications integrity. That it is news when BT fails to stand up to this task, as in the Manchester case, is testament to the benefits a resilient disaster recovery plan has had for its brand.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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