As pandemics force companies to consider how they will cope with reduced staff numbers, there is emphasis on the vital role played by effective succession planning in ensuring continuity of service.
For many organisations, their annual reports give an assurance that ‘our people are our greatest asset’, or words to that effect.
However, their business continuity strategies often focus on IT, telephony and premises.
That said there is a growing acknowledgement that maintaining the availability of core skills and knowledge also needs to be addressed as part of a BCM strategy, and puts people first in the list of organisational resources to be considered.
However, the primary reason is that senior managers have been forced to put business continuity at the top of their agenda as they consider how they might cope with limited resources.
What activities can be stopped, scaled down or done differently, and how can staff be redeployed most effectively?
For many organisations, this is the first time they have really given serious consideration to how to maintain their business with reduced staff numbers or without key staff members.
So having started on this process, what should organisations be doing to ensure that people issues are addressed as part of their continuity strategy?
Companies will have comprehensive succession plans in place, ensuring that there is always someone suitable, qualified and skilled ready to fill gaps, whatever challenges arise.
The process involves having a clear understanding of the organisation’s long-term goals and objectives, matched with knowledge of the current capability of staff and their development needs, plus an awareness of what is happening in the labour market.
Apart from eliminating single points of failure, the advantages of embedding succession planning throughout the organisation include amongst others more motivated staff, more effective deployment, effective transition between roles and preparing for bigger roles.
The other advantages will be better retention of valued staff, broader business understanding through cross-functional moves and improved capability to deal with a crisis or disruption.
The challenge for BCM practitioners is to ensure that business continuity requirements and the range of skills available throughout the organisation are captured as part of the succession planning process.
Although it should be pointed out that succession planning as part of a BCM strategy does not have to mean finding long-term successors for all key roles, a temporary stand-in with the right skills and knowledge may be all that is needed in most cases.
Identify critical staff in all business areas and support functions, ideally as part of a broader business impact analysis of business continuity planning activities.
‘Critical’ in this context is time critical, and the extent to which skills, knowledge or relationships are unique, or cover is limited. Where are the single points of failure?
Establish which members of staff are irreplaceable in the short term. Are there key skills that would be hard to replace? Is there a heavy reliance on ‘go to’ people with specific knowledge about processes, systems, regulations, and so on?
Do key customers rely on relationships with specific knowledgeable individuals? Who needs to be available to make key decisions or authorise transactions? Have minimum levels of cover been agreed and are they being met?
The analysis here must be sufficiently objective and challenging, as this stage will determine whether staff is really critical and where priorities should lie in developing strategy options.
Remember that this can be a sensitive process. One company, having identified its critical staff, wrote to all its 600 employees telling them whether they had been classified as critical or non-critical ÔÇô perhaps that is not the best way of motivating 90 percent of your staff.
Once a good understanding of critical areas and the potential impacts of losing key staff has been established, the next step is to decide what to do to tackle these issues. There may already be a number of factors that can lessen the likely impacts of losing people.
Staff in other departments or at other locations may have the necessary skills or knowledge to provide temporary cover. Or it may be possible to bring in temporary staff if the skills needed are widely available. Other measures to consider include introducing or extending cross-training or multi-skilling to extend cover.
Some prioritisation of work may also be possible by identifying what can be deferred, transferred or outsourced. In some cases, key person insurance may be a cost-effective option.
But only when the direct impact of losing key staff is largely financial – it may not be much help if loss of reputation is likely.
The most appropriate solution, or combination of solutions, is likely to vary for each critical area. These options may be considered; re-allocation of non-critical staff, succession planning, cross-training or multi-skilling, documented procedures, agency staff or contractors or recruit new staff. The other options may be to transfer work to other locations or defer, outsourcing and insurance.
As with any business continuity strategy, implementation is a pivotal point in the process. This is where you commit to investing the time and money necessary to make it happen.
The key to successful implementation is to keep solutions simple and cost-effective, focusing on quick wins. Make sure that agreed strategies are translated into firm plans and delivered ÔÇô ideally, accountability for this must sit with local executives where possible.
(Jacob Makgwesha Mothupi is the Chief Executive Officer of ContinuitySA ÔÇô Botswana)