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Succession Planning IS Important

Disaster planning can be easily compared to data management for people who work in offices, where computer usage is a routine part of their job.  In my experiences working in the IT sector, I have seen so often where our end-users experience panic and shock when they encounter a PC problem that jeopardizes their data.  The first question usually asked is whether or not I can save their data.  My first question usually goes something like…”Have you backed up your data?”  Most of the time, the answer is an unfortunate ‘no’, to which I respond by stating that we will make all efforts to save or restore their data.  Sometimes the problem is beyond our abilities to recover from it.  For these users, they face the stark reality that a certain amount of data is gone, which in some extreme cases, could amount to multiple years of data.  Usually with some foresight and planning, these users would have been slightly inconvenienced if they had backed up their data and had backup plans in place.

Honestly, data loss on a single PC does not constitute a disaster, and I am by no means attempting to downplay situations where there is some natural disaster or accident that may have ramifications that go well beyond a company or organization.  Recently, I read an article on Forbes.com that documented the story of Ingar Skaug, who took over the position of CEO at Wilhelmsen (a Scandinavian shipping company).   In 1989, the top two levels of management were all killed in an airplane crash while traveling to celebrate the launch of a new carrier.  Skaug, after much debate, decided to take on the position of CEO and has since been able to turn around the fortunes of Wilhelmsen, by increasing revenue from $250 million to $5 billion, from 9 ships to 164, and 3,500 employees to 23,000 (in 75 countries).  The company has not only recovered, but has prospered due to quality leadership from Skaug and an increased focus by employees on stepping up to new challenges and responsibilities.

While reading the article, I gave some thought about the condition of the company and how they were able to recover.  While this example is extreme, I do feel that it is very important to an organization to have some sort of succession planning in place (not only disaster recovery, but also personnel loss through retirement or otherwise leaving the company).  Workers come and go frequently in the modern business world.  In some respects, if an employee stays in one place too long, they may miss out of opportunity.  Any job posting usually calls for a vast array of skills and talents, which may not all be possible to learn while at a single organization.  This very nature calls for planning by the management team to be able to recover when an indispensable employee decides to leave.  As in the case of Wilhelmsen, life can be unpredictable and misfortune can strike at any time.  All organizations should spend some time making efforts to be able to respond to the loss of a key employee, even at the expense of some productivity.

On a personal level, I have made the mistake of not cross training as much as I should have.  Furthermore, I was not always focusing on what we would do if someone in a key strategic position were to leave.  One line of thought would be to not allow an environment where any one employee could be that important to the business operations.  Sometimes with small numbers or teams with limited resources, an employee responsible for a key role in the organization may not be able to do anything else.  This can be unfair to that specific employee because if they are indispensable and cannot be replaced, they really are stuck in that position and cannot be promoted to bigger and better things.  In an ideal setup, if an employee is considered indispensable, time and resources need to be spent cross training others.  Employees usually will specialize, but secondary employees need to be able to know enough of the operation to step in and help when needed, or with the loss of an employee, able to take over the responsibility.  It may be difficult, and productivity may be reduced initially, but the end result is a more versatile work force, which can adapt to the loss of an employee.  Otherwise the result can be a situation where someone leaves the organization, and suddenly a key role cannot be reproduced because there is nobody else who can perform the role.  This will be a true trial-by-fire situation, where the end result cannot be predicted.  Uncertainty in the business world allows for greater variation in quality and services rendered.  Variation should be considered the enemy of all businesses as it tells a story of inconsistency and lack of good procedures.

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