Should CIOs Have a Foreign Policy?

With business operations entangled in the unpredictable and sometimes volatile global scene, the answer is a resounding 'yes' (and the more detailed, the better).

In July 2005, a series of suicide bomb attacks in London's transit system killed 56 people and threw the city into a state of confusion. The U.S.-based CEO of a multinational financial company with offices in London posed what to him seemed a simple and essential question: "Are all our people OK?"

Getting an answer proved challenging. First, there was no single staff directory that covered the entire company and was kept up to date with ongoing staff changes. Nor was there a single directory of every person's location and contact information. Second, even if it existed, such a directory would not have included contractors, who nonetheless fit within the CEO's definition of "our people."

Third, there was no central record of which London employees were on vacation, on leave or traveling that day, or -- more worrisome -- which employees from other locations might be visiting London. And finally, even for those employees who were known to be in London and for whom the company had addresses and phone numbers, it was hard to make contact.

"Transportation was disrupted, cellphone service was down, SMS was down, and it was very unclear for most of the day just what had happened," recalls Andrew Marshall, director of Consultifi, which helps companies understand business risks.

The company's HR and IT departments weren't able to provide a timely answer to the CEO's questions, he says. "It turned into a conversation that involved philosophy and technology as well as HR," Marshall notes.

There are several lessons any IT leader can draw from this tale. First, there's no such thing as a safe location: Disruptions can happen anywhere. Second, it's important to have a plan that spells out what everyone's responsibilities will be and includes all the information you'll need. And finally, you need redundant communications systems, because "normal" methods of communication will likely fail -- especially mobile, which is quickly overwhelmed by the spike in local demand that takes place during any crisis.

Concerns About Crisis Events Grow

It would be impossible to think about events of the past 12 months without having at least a few qualms over systems, data and employees, especially those outside the U.S., and the possible effect of local unrest, epidemics, earthquakes or other hazards. Indeed, in a 2010 survey of the 100 largest technology companies, 55% of executives reported worrying about "natural disasters, war, conflicts and terrorist attacks." When the same executives were again asked that question in 2011, that percentage rose to 81%.

In this increasingly global and interconnected world, it's easy to see why they're concerned. Power outages, weather events, political unrest or even something as mundane as a ship dragging its anchor over a fiber-optic cable can disrupt your operations in unexpected ways. Data centers could go offline. Data stored in remote locations could become unavailable, as could your supply chain. You could lose contact with offshore service providers due to interrupted communications. Software-as-a-service applications could go offline. And although cloud-based infrastructure is mostly hosted in the U.S. now, that's expected to change in the next few years, posing even greater risks.

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