Continuing my process of writing about topics suggested by friends, today I’m responding to Melinda, who wanted me to answer this: “How about surviving without tech. Can it be done? Why do businesses need to essentially shut down when their computers go down?” The short answer, of course, is that everything runs on computers now, and if the computers go down, most businesses are unable to help you. However, there are some options, depending on the situation and the level of the downtime. Onward!
How bad is it?
Computer-based business interruptions are often (at least here in Florida) the result of electrical power outages and can usually be gauged by the extent and duration of a outage:
- Building/Momentary: The lights go out just long enough to make the lights flicker and all the computers in the room to reboot. This is an inconvenience. Sometimes, if you’re not diligent about saving, you can lose a bunch of work. In situations like this, your customers might be able to ride out the situation while still on the phone with you.
- Street/Brief: The lights go out anywhere from a minute to a couple hours. You and your coworkers are operating on the six-hour charge on your laptops; the printers, internal network (intranet), and wifi are down; and cell phones or land lines might or might not have a signal, depending on the nature of the outage. You apologize to any customers calling in (assuming you have phone service), handle what requests/issues you can, and otherwise collect customer information and offer to call back, if possible.
- Neighborhood/Short-term: Sometimes the power is out for a day or two. Usually this is a localized issue due to a heavy thunderstorm or tornado. Assuming your organization’s facility isn’t seriously damaged, you and your team can put a temporary voice mail in place until the power company informs you that the power is back on.
- Region/City/Long-term: In the event of a major weather event, such as a hurricane or the massive tornado outbreak that struck Alabama in 2011, large stretches of a region can be without electrical power for a week or more. In such a situation, you might or might not be able to set up an out-of-service voice mail or email. However, if customers call your office, they are likely to encounter an unfamiliar buzzing that occurs when no signal is available. There could be lives lost, major damage involved. In major disasters like that, you’re more likely to be concerned with local recovery efforts in your homes or neighborhoods before you can even GET to work. Your customers can or will have to wait until your city can get back to normal, if possible. During the 2011 Alabama tornado outbreak, because I was on deadline to get a conference up and running within a month, I was asked to relocate to a region with power to keep the show going (I opted for Nashville, my co-chair headed for South Carolina).
Of course sometimes your computer system–a shared system upon which your customers depend–goes down due to a software patch, a virus, a denial-of-service attack, or some other situation that cannot be accounted for by natural forces. Regardless of the situation–human-created or natural–your responses will vary with the length and severity of the outage. Obviously, the bigger the problem, the harder you’ll have to work to return to “business as usual.”
Regardless of the emergency, if your business finds itself without access to its money-making computer-based systems, you are going to have to have (or find) ways to recover. This becomes especially evident if you’ve got power, phone service, and just no computers.
It’s been my experience that anyone who’s worked with computers up through the mid-1990s is used to having an analog/paper/physical backup service on hand simply because computers were considered too unreliable to be trusted 100% of the time.
For example, Disney hotels often ran massive reports on tractor-fed 11X17″ paper a couple times a day to track the property’s occupancy in the event of a power outage. This was perhaps a more regular occurrence in Central Florida, where afternoon thunderstorms were a regular occurrence. We also had a paper filing system (called “the bucket”) organized by room numbers for tracking registration cards. Sometimes the thunderstorms/power outage would occur right at peak check-in time, leaving the front desk staff to assign rooms and crunch keys (this was when they were still using plastic cards perforated with patterns of round holes) manually. The process was slow, labor-intensive, and sometimes inaccurate, but it kept the guest queues and the operation itself moving.
Can Your 21st Century Business Operate in Analog?
The short answer to whether your company can operate in analog is, it depends. If you’re building high-precision parts with computer-controlled six-axis milling machines, odds are, the answer is not until the power or the computer is back up and running. If you’re handling customer service for a bank, store, or other service organization, the answer could be no or not right now. A lot of customer service, inventory, or question-answering systems are now computerized as well.
Critical infrastructure and emergency response organizations like utilities and 9-1-1 are set up for backup communications, including battery-powered radios. Retail organizations can sometimes operate, though that too become a manual process, requiring calculators, handwritten receipts, and manual credit card imprinters. People who are used to navigating with the map applications on their phones might have to break down and use paper maps or (oh my gosh, NO!) pull over and ask for directions.
Again, the bottom-line response to Melinda’s question is: no, most businesses cannot help you if their computers are down. Computers have become so indispensable to our economy that reverting to manual/analog processes, while possible, is often cost-prohbitive. However, if you’re in a busy operation when the computers go down, you might look for a GenXer or someone older. Odds are, they remember how things ran before computers ran everything.