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Throwing The Book at Pandemics

The White House has just issued a report, the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, that outlines steps businesses and local governments should take to prepare for the Avian Flu.

But corporate America hasn't been waiting for a presidential edict to get started. In preparation for the next time Mother Nature attacks, most companies have established business continuity plans (BCPs) that rely to a great extent on the nation's Internet backbone to provide the infrastructure for telecommuting.

The business community was caught by surprise when SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) disrupted economies in 2003, and was again caught flat-footed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But there is an important difference between many of those other disasters, and the looming threat of Avian Flu. There is a sense of inevitability that this disaster will strike the homeland.

According to Steven Ross, global leader of Deloitte's business continuity management practice, there is no escaping a pandemic of some kind in the near future.

"The likelihood that we'll get hit by the Avian Flu, or something like it, is incredibly high," he said. "We're absolutely due."

Due? Has Ross been speaking with Pat Robertson? Are we in for a reckoning?

Not quite. Ross was speaking in terms of historical probabilities. Since the 15th century, there have been three pandemics during every century, affecting between 1 percent and 3 percent of the world's population.

The most recent ones include the infamous Spanish Influenza of 1918, which sickened between 40 million and 50 million people across the world, and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968.

These aren't just the sensationalistic predictions of a self-interested consultant.

Isaac Weisfuse, deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Hygiene, called the imminent risk of a pandemic "substantial," although he also qualified this speculation as "conjecture on everyone's part."

The main difference between pandemics of the past, though, is that there probably won't be "dead bodies piling up in the streets," as Ross put it.

Rather, businesses will have to plan for disruptions caused by extensive and ongoing absenteeism -- up to a third of the workforce, and for weeks at a time.

And while automation has taken over the functions that were once performed by people, the tasks that still require human intervention are more critical than ever.

"What we've done with all the automation is we've taken functions that are labor intensive and made them single points of failure in the supply chain," said Ross.

Surprisingly, business planning isn't as far along as one might expect.

According to a report produced by international HR consulting firm Watson Wyatt, only 15 percent of U.S. companies have plans in place in the event of an outbreak of Avian Flu, and only 34 percent are even "greatly or moderately concerned" by this.

But Bob Wesselkamper, author of the study, told internetnews.com that newer research by Watson Wyatt will show that "U.S. preparedness has jumped in a short period of time."

He credited attention to the topic that has been brought by the press and the administration.

Wesselkamper noted that, paradoxically, companies that were affected by SARS are less frightened by the prospect of a pandemic, because they realized that life goes on.

"People learn to live with tremendous amounts of adversity and horror," he said.

That said, many multinational technology companies are very far along the process, assessing risks and developing and communicating BCPs with their employees.

Typically, they take their cues from either the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or the World Health Organization (WHO), to calibrate appropriate states of deployment for their BCP plans.

The CDC tracks disease spread on a scale of one to six. It currently pegs the Avian Flu at Phase Three (human infections from a new sub-type, but no human-to-human contagion), so most companies are simply educating their employees about what their BCP plans entail, without raising undue concerns.

"We're trying to be responsible, so we're not alarmist," noted Lou Gellos, a spokesman and BCP taskforce member at Microsoft. "But just because we're not alarmist doesn't mean we haven't thought about it."

As a global company, Microsoft has been affected by a range of natural disasters, Gellos told internetnews.com, from Hurricane Katrina, to earthquakes and tsunamis. But it is far from the only company with this unfortunate type of experience.

Chuck Mulloy, a spokesman at Intel, said the chipmaker learned from lumps it took in 2003, when one of its employees at its Hong Kong office was hospitalized with SARS.

"SARS alerted us to holes in our planning system," he said. "We realized that we needed a more formalized approach so we're not making it up at the last minute."

Xerox is another global company that has created contingency plans for its organization.

According to Kara Choquette, a company spokeswoman, Xerox has established "social distancing measures" that include policies on telecommuting, meetings and travel.

Like many other companies, it has also taken a close look at its manufacturing plants and its global supply chain to ensure that business can continue regardless of where in the world a pandemic might hit.

Xerox and its manufacturing partners "have manufacturing capacity in several sites around the world, so any impact in one region could be offset by sites in other regions," Choquette said.

The one area where companies still seem to be in the dark is the impact of telecommuting on their networks.

For instance, Gellos said that if its network can handle snow days in Seattle, when tens of thousands of Microsoft employees log on from home, it can handle the load if a pandemic forces the company to ask everyone to work from home.

"We have 60,000 employees worldwide, but half the world is sleeping at any one time," he noted.

Likewise, Mulloy noted that Intel's workforce is located in geographically disparate areas, reducing the impact of a sudden surge in usage.

"The Internet gets a lot of usage as it is," he said.

And while Xerox said it is load-testing its infrastructure, it would not offer a more detailed explanation.

Whether they are right about the capacity of the Internet to tolerate massive telecommuting remains to be seen, although we'd rather not have to find out.



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