Crisis Management for IT decision makers, in Computerwoche 17/2011

Without IT, virtually no company can maintain its business processes today. Those responsible for IT must therefore prepare for emergencies just as well as disaster control.

Articles by Harmen Frobeen & Denis Standhardt

The “emergency” can have many faces: The failure of middleware due to a logical error at a bank, the total breakdown of an insurance company’s data center due to natural disasters, espionage at a high-tech company or simply data theft. As dependence on IT increases, so does the intensity of IT-induced claims and their impact on the business. A fatalistic shit-happens mentality among those involved quickly has noticeable consequences for their own employment, especially when the company has been hit to the core by the damage.

Special Case Crisis

Crisis situations are characterized precisely by the fact that they can no longer be handled by the normal organization. The mere processing of checklists and action plans, as in the case of simple operational disruptions, is no longer sufficient to cope with the event and its effects. Creative, but also far-sighted solution finding capacity is required in a previously unknown situation.

Crises are often caused by the concatenation of a multitude of factors, for example unauthorized changes, inadequate security organization or a lack of holistic thinking. In a crisis, several stress factors accumulate: time pressure, decision pressure, pressure to act. In addition, there are personal feelings such as shock, lack of information, escalation of events or perceived loss of control. Therefore, in such a situation, a structured approach becomes even more important.

The central management body for crisis management is the crisis team. It represents a temporary organizational structure that works beyond the normal structures to overcome a crisis and bundles overarching competencies. On a non-hierarchical decision-making level, the staff plans, coordinates, initiates and monitors all crisis management activities. In addition, it controls the provision of all relevant information and resources for overcoming the crisis.

Crisis Team and Leadership Rhythm

The crisis team is composed of a leader, a core team and an extended team. During the crisis team work, decisions are made in the team on the basis of the available information. The head of the crisis team moderates the work and draws on the problem-solving skills of all members. They contribute their specialist know-how, which is important for assessing the situation from the overall perspective of the entire company. Decisions and further planning for future actions are recorded in detail. Orders should only be given in written form. The central working instrument of the crisis management team is the so-called leadership rhythm, which consists of the following elements:

The management report presents all available relevant information. This requires crisis management team members who are familiar with as much current information as possible and can present it briefly and precisely. Visualization tools are indispensable in the management report. The management report should be repeated at regular intervals so that all members are aware of the available and relevant information.

The management report forms the basis for the joint situation analysis. The aim of this analysis is to ensure that all members of the crisis team have a common picture of the problem they face. The information presented in the management report is analyzed and evaluated. Errors in the situation analysis can lead to serious consequences in crisis management.

After having worked out a common picture of the situation, the head of the crisis unit first collects suggestions for immediate measures from all members. These are then briefly discussed in detail, decided and commissioned. They aim to limit the further spread of the damage in the short term or to comply with conditions (e.g. insurance conditions, official requirements) and should be an exception in crisis management. Too many immediate measures are a sign that the crisis team is not in control.

The goal of the next phase Options for Action is to “get in front of the situation”, i.e. to foresee threatening developments and to act in such a way that the negative developments are contained. Or, to quote football legend Pelé: “Don’t run to where the ball is, but to where it will be.”

During the following placement of orders, the representative must receive clear and comprehensible instructions on implementation and timing so that he can carry out the order accordingly. The commissioner’s competence in finding solutions should be taken into account.

Crisis Management Manual

A customized crisis management manual is necessary for the efficient work of the crisis management team. This should be structured in document levels appropriate to the target group and contain elaborated crisis scenarios that are oriented to the leadership rhythm. It should also contain a general procedure for scenarios that cannot be planned. The typical structure of a best-practice crisis management manual looks like this, for example:

  • Start Crisis Management
  • First checklists
  • Action plans
  • Checklists crisis team
  • Business continuation checklists
  • Checklists for restart planning
  • Checklists Communication
  • Checklists Crime risks
  • Checklists for subsequent work
  • General part

Under certain circumstances, the crisis management team must be able to work as smoothly and concentrated as possible, even over a longer period of time. A closed area with sanitary facilities, break room, etc., which ideally cannot be seen from the outside and is as tap-proof as possible, ensures appropriate working conditions.

Well prepared for crises

IT crisis management requires an arsenal of special management tools that are not necessary during the operational fair weather phases. Critical to success for effective preparation for crises are in particular:

  • Establishing a powerful IT crisis and IT emergency organization
  • Development of instructions and checklists for crisis scenarios
  • Practice emergency situations
  • Training of the crisis management team
  • A close integration with the business continuity management functions

The stress factors of a crisis require manual skills as well as extensive organizational and mental preparation. Appropriate learning and training – for example in crisis management exercises or crisis communication training – provides maximum room for maneuver in emergency and crisis situations and thus helps to manage events in a targeted manner.

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