Annual Meeting Reports

Planning for Continuous Operations in an Emergency

This session was immediately captivating because attendees were compelled to consider what few people want to think about: What would happen if an emergency or disaster affected the very ability of a publisher to function? Could operations continue or restart? How long might recovery take? Are there ways to mitigate such an event by planning?

Angela Schmeckebier, based in Birmingham, Alabama, served as moderator and introduced both speakers. She set the tone for the session by recounting the devastating 2011 tornado outbreak that directly affected her workplace and that of a number of remote employees who work on her journal. That recent event was a stark reminder that disasters do not just happen to “other people” in far-off places and that everyone needs to put some thought and planning into “what if?”.

As executive editor of the Journal of Histochemisty and Cytochemistry, Denis Baskin leads a small staff, all of whom can be considered remote employees. He began by observing that when many people think about disasters they tend to think primarily about such events as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and terrorist attacks that can take out entire buildings, cities, and even regions. But he pointed out that such calamities are only part of the story. What often flies under the radar, he said, is the vulnerability of publishing operations that consist primarily of remote staff who exist more in functional and virtual space than in “brick and mortar” physical space. In such operations, the risks to business continuity are multiplied by the number of remote employees, each of whom has a vital role to play in the operation. A “disaster” in such a scenario can include things as basic as the prolonged illness of one of those remote employees or an extended power outage that affects an employee’s home office. The risks to brick-and-mortar offices are real indeed, but they are more centralized, and there are generally more resources at hand to deal with emergencies.

From a risk-reduction standpoint, there are advantages and disadvantages to virtual and physical workplaces. For example, in the case of a pandemic, virtual offices have a much lower potential for the spread of disease. But data and physical security may be more robust in a large, centralized workplace. In either scenario, Baskin emphasized that planning for unforeseen events is critical. He discussed the merits of offsite and redundant computer backups, emergency evacuation bags, contact cards for people to keep in their wallets, designated meeting places, and periodic practice drills and reviews of emergency and communication plans.

As an executive publisher for Elsevier, Michael Weston brought a different perspective to the session. Elsevier, with a global staff of well over 30,000, has more full-time staff around the world dedicated to business continuity than most publishers have staff! He said that Elsevier’s approach regarding business continuity is “to ensure that we can function no matter what.” To that end, the company has an Incident Management Team that consists of finance, facilities, human resources, and information-technology staff and meets every day by telephone to discuss problems or flashpoints that may need to be addressed anywhere in the world. There is not 100% redundancy within the company, of course, but Elsevier has procedures in place that allow someone to log in for someone else and access critical data or perform essential job functions if the need arises. An external emergency website and emergency hotline are available for all staff to access. Weston pointed out that access to the Internet is paramount for Elsevier and that contingency plans are in place for interruptions anywhere along the grid.

My takeaway from this outstanding session was that whether publishing organizations have a staff of 3, 30, or 30,000, it is essential that time and resources be dedicated to planning for all manner of emergency scenarios before events make it necessary to do so.