At a recent summit on corporate pandemic preparations, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was blunt: "Avian flu . . . will severely test the best-laid plans . . . and many companies are not making any plans at all. Those expecting the federal government to ride in and come to their rescue [will] be sorely disappointed."
Given the short time until a pandemic might occur, the only way businesses can prepare is through unprecedented internal and external collaboration. Fortunately, the benefits of this focus on collaboration technologies and attitudes will endure long afterward.
A pandemic's unpredictability and lack of planning time leave no room for duplication of effort. Technologies such as wikis are particularly well suited to this problem. Wikiware recently has emerged as an effective way to allow many users to simultaneously contribute to shared documents. Most relevant to pandemic preparation is www.fluwikie.com, perhaps the world's most comprehensive repository for pandemic-related news and views. Although the business-continuity section is less detailed than its other areas, this can change in hours if companies begin to post their own continuity plans, for example, and create Q&A threads.
Are you ready? Discuss in our avian flu forum.
Public-domain wikis get the most attention, but companies such as Motorola and SAP use wikiware behind the firewall. In pandemic planning, corporate employees can contribute simultaneously to a wiki-based company plan. During better times, wikis will simplify editing of corporate documents, track software bugs and let spreadsheets be shared easily.
A pandemic may also speed corporate adoption of other emerging technologies that collect, share and act on real-time, location-based information. I bet we'll soon see a Google Maps mash-up tracking the virus' spread in real time. Presence dashboards, such as Roaming Messenger, which integrate data from remote sensors on a real-time basis and contact personnel instantly via whatever devices they can access at that moment, will be invaluable for collecting and sharing information companywide based on where workers, supply-chain partners and customers are in relation to disease outbreaks. During normal times, these dashboards can optimize production and reduce maintenance costs by alerting key personnel about system failures, finding back-up personnel or sending orders to vendors to replenish inventory.
The second component of successful coping with a pandemic - unprecedented collaboration - is tougher, because it requires attitudinal change. There is no room for competition regarding pandemic planning on either a corporate or global level. Equally challenging, it must be done simultaneously at all levels: in companies and schools; in government and other institutions in every community where you do business; and with your competitors, through trade associations -and once a pandemic is in progress, perhaps on an hour-by-hour basis. However, it's equally clear from collaboration pioneers -Lego, which involves customers in product design, and the Smart and Secure Trade Lanes Initiative, which reduces bioterrorism risk and improves supply-chain management - that collaboration pays tangible business dividends.
I'd prefer to do it more leisurely, but lessons learned under this threat about the technologies and attitudes required for collaboration will pay off for years to come.
Stephenson is a homeland security and crisis consultant, and creator of the "Pandemic Survival Planner" for handhelds. Check out his blog.