With natural disasters and disruptions seemingly occurring somewhere in the world every week, whether earthquake, flood, tornado or cyclone. In recognising this, I got to thinking about the way that international projects often rely on their communications, both the face to face component, and their often relatively formalised and centralised communication and power structures to get things done. All of these function well when everything is working, but all of which can unravel and fragment quickly when travel is restricted or power is cut.
Many organisations and projects will, or at least should, have disaster plans and business continuity plans in place. These plans typically cover how they will deal with various forms of natural disaster, along with responding to issues such as civil unrest in one of the locations the project is being executed, whether this is the home office, one of the projects domestic or international satellite offices or the factory or job site. I wonder, however, how many projects would take the time to develop their own, stand alone disaster plan, one separate to the overall business, and what those disaster plans would include.
Planning For Disruptions
Recommendations to cover the basics would be;
- Safety of all personnel – regardless of their position in the company and status within the project, the first thing needed is to ensure the safety of all personnel. This part of the plan would include keeping registers of the locations of anyone travelling, emergency contact details for all personnel, evacuation points for personnel in the event of natural, accidental or man made disasters, and if evacuation is not possible, safe muster points for personnel to gather and arrange for whatever measures are needed to look after everyone. You would also include home contact details for personnel, along with similar for any unaccompanied personnel on expat relocations or business visits.
- Protection of project assets and information – I would also place this high on any disaster plan. It belongs before the restoration of services, since, if the assets are lost, the project not only has to replicate them, it also has to then continue on to its completion. This plan therefore would include safe storage of any project information, including design data, prototypes, cost and contractual management information, equipment etc.
- Plans to restore services – this would be to be put in place as and when safe and appropriate to do so. There is little point, after all, in restoring power to a test facility if the personnel required to operate it are all being evacuated.
- Plans to restore communications – this should take a pretty high level of importance for both the welfare of the personnel and the integrity of the project. Communications either outward or inward are vital in any disruption, families need to contact relatives, any emergency aid required needs to be coordinated and the project personnel need to be able to manage whatever actions they have for the continuity of the work.
- A realistic emergency responsibilities matrix – if everything else in the world is as normal but, for whatever reason, the different locations are unable to communicate, the project needs to be able to continue with as few interruptions as possible. I would propose that every project has key personnel in each location empowered to make whatever decisions are required to ensure continuity of the project, welfare of all project personnel and reasonable progress of the work at hand without fear of retribution once communications are restored. These should be as simple as appointing people and giving them explicit guidelines as to when these powers come into effect, without this measure, some project teams, where the project is run with a rigid control structure, may well cease work while they wait for instructions and, in the worst possible scenario may become paralysed waiting for guidance and leave personnel exposed to un necessary dangers and risks.
The responsibilities matrix and associated communications plans must take into account the regional influences of cultural differences, especially uncertainty avoidance and power distance, and take away any guess work and assumptions of perceived authority which may occur.
The emergency measures will obviously differ greatly dependant on the international locations, structure and deliverables of your particular project. Some may be very simple plans indeed, while others may be relatively complex and need to consider many factors and disruptions not identified above. However, I would certainly be interested in hearing from anyone on their experiences both in recent disasters and on previous projects.
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