Maintaining and implementing business continuity plans include planning and coordinating certain plan exercises, and evaluating and documenting their results.

Why are plan exercises important?

For survival, every organization should develop processes to maintain the continuity capabilities and ensure that the plan remains in alignment with the organization’s strategic vision and tactical direction.

Also, if a disaster or crisis occurs that suddenly activates the business continuity plan, employees must be ready to effectively and efficiently implement it. Having an approved plan in place, and even having employees trained in carrying it out, is only two-thirds of the essential preparation process. Real scenario-based testing through planned exercises truly brings the process to life and engages everyone in it.

Exercises also will uncover potential gaps in the implementation plan and determine if certain functions needed to carry it out are understaffed. This will be apparent during scenario-based testing, and could indicate a need to assign more people to certain areas. The exercises also will reveal whether some employees not equipped to handle their assigned functions Further training in these areas can be conducted or people can be reassigned as needed to match talents with functions.

Security managers should pay special attention to any communication gaps that might exist between certain areas during the exercise. It’s better to learn about these problems now than when an actual disaster or crisis occurs.

Once the scenario-based testing exercise has been completed and evaluated, the manager should develop an exercise strategy that does not put the organization at risk. It should be practical, cost-effective and appropriate to the organization. It should approximate the types of incidents that the organization is likely to experience and the problems associated with these incidents. An exercise based on a highly unlikely set of circumstances may not engender the best level of interest and commitment of employees – they could see it as a waste of time. However, a good scenario choice can serve to motivate employees and gain their highest level of commitment to the process.

The exercise should be mapped out in a logical, structured approach and the same set of information communicated to all participants. If assumptions about certain aspects of the simulated problem are to be made, these must be stated clearly so that all participants understand them. The amount of information delivered at the start of the exercise must be reasonable, so that participants will be able to remember it and act on it when necessary.

Exercise types

Several different types of exercises can be employed, including:

  • Walkthroughs/tabletop exercises
  • Simulations
  • Modular/component xercises (call trees, applications, etc.)
  • Functional exercises (specific lines of business)
  • Announced/planned exercises
  • Unannounced/surprise exercises

Exercise evaluation criteria also need to be carefully developed before the exercise begins and aligned with the exercise objectives and scope. These will include both qualitative and quantitative results to be measured. Criteria should cover expected versus actual results and unexpected results.

These results should be compiled into a cogent, comprehensive summary with recommendations for possible improvements and adjustments to the business continuity plan.

Debriefing sessions with participants will provide opportunities to review exercise results and identify action items. Time schedules for completing these items also should be established.

A final bit of advice on planning exercises: start small. With all of the considerations outlined above, conducting a successful exercise and gaining the necessary actionable feedback is not an easy process.

For all of these reasons and more, it is vital that each exercise conducted be considered a success – by both the business continuity planning team and the exercise participants. Small exercises have a greater probability of success, so begin with a walkthrough/tabletop exercise and progress to full-scale simulations and real-time testing later.