Business continuity planning (BCP) focuses on what it takes for our businesses to continue to operate, usually after disaster or disruption.

BCP conversations typically center around infrastructure, communications, facilities, supplies and data. It looks at where we operate, as well as what tools, materials and information we need. BCP strategies tend to be concerned with protecting what we have, having some redundancy to reduce failures, and having access to alternatives to fail safely. Even in the realm of communications, BCP focuses on getting messages through, ensuring they are legitimate and authenticated, and maintaining the ability to operate without normal command and control.

Human resources (HR) teams participate in BCP conversations, but mostly from the standpoint of succession planning, as well as how we contact our people, ensure their safety and enable them to return to work.

What can get left out of BCP discussions regarding planning, testing and rehearsing is the “soft stuff.” How do people think and feel during disruption? How do they operate effectively and efficiently? What skills do they need to take care of customers, keep distribution channels open and preserve supply chain relationships during disruption? This is the realm of learning and development (L&D).

Battered by overlapping crises of the pandemic, economic challenge and social unrest, companies increasingly recognize that planning for business continuity also encompasses developing the mindset and skills necessary for long-term resilience. In this context, L&D can play an increasingly pivotal role in preparing and enabling our organizations to change, adapt and persevere through crisis.

How Does L&D Fit in the BCP Conversation?

As much as we need backup sites, rollover capability, trusted data sources, redundant power and resilient communications, we also need people to put all those assets to good use. Employees and leaders at every level must prioritize appropriately and problem-solve creatively while concurrently dealing with the emergency and its aftermath. We need fast reaction times, cool-headed thinking and the ability to execute the plan.

We also must prepare our people to deal with the unavoidable surprises and impact that accompanies disruption. We want them to help customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who may be less prepared deal with both the material and emotional impacts of that disruption. We depend on our people to get through crisis; we also depend on them to support others who we need to survive with us.

In our experience, the human aspect of business continuity includes “hardening” our people skills by:

  • Listening with curiosity and empathy.
  • Joint problem-solving to collaborate on solutions, both internally and externally.
  • Strategically thinking to separate the signal from the noise, to look at context, to zoom out from immediate challenges to look at the big picture.

In a recent survey conducted by Vantage Partners, HR and learning professionals identified these as the top three critical skills for leaders. When those skills were missing, consequences included poor decision-making, employee burnout, lack of buy-in or follow-through, and damaged relationships. In dealing with a disruption that threatens business continuity, these skills can make the difference between coming out the other end. Preserving rather than damaging relationships, as one of the authors noted in a recent Medium article, becomes key to successful recovery.

What About When the Crisis Continues?

The interwoven health, economic and social justice crises of 2020 have taught us that there is another dimension to disaster recovery and BCP. Unlike the disruption scenarios we commonly plan for — accidents, fires, catastrophic weather, utility service or supply breakdowns — the disruption may not be short lived. We may be in this for the long haul. In our survey, 85 percent of HR and L&D leaders agreed that the “stress and turbulence of the current conditions” have resulted in L&D teams placing a larger emphasis on “building organizational resilience.”

BCP in a longer-lasting disruption is not so much about quick response time but rather about sustaining both material and human capabilities. This is not a sprint to safety; our people need to maintain their energy and morale for a “marathon” of uncertain mileage. A core element of training for some of the world’s elite special operations military units includes a run or march of unknown distance, where the perceived finish line can be literally pulled away and participants pushed to “keep going” before they finish. Similarly, when disruption is longer lasting, our survival and success may also depend on those who can keep pushing along with us. That often includes key customers, suppliers and business partners throughout the value chain.

What do we need from leaders amidst a crisis without a clear finish line?

  • We need leaders who “can go the distance” without knowing what the distance is.
  • We need leaders who help the organization navigate the changes that disruption requires, without the luxury of a fully mapped-out change management plan.
  • We need leaders who can map the path to the next normal.

If these represent key organizational needs for continuity and resilience, L&D can build them into learning journeys and career paths, helping the organization plan for and build capabilities before we have to call upon them — just as we build redundant facilities and technologies, practice rolling over to them, and test and maintain them even if we never use them.

The good news is some of the key skills underlying these strategic requirements for greater resilience are also applicable outside of prolonged crises: 

  • Managing and marshaling your energy. One leading consumer goods company, among others, trains its people to understand the different types of energy they possess and how to manage them. Learners come to understand that curiosity, reframing and taking action are three things that build resilience, as well as develop their own plans to renew their personal capacity. 
  • Leading and navigating change. By now, we have learned that change never stops; it only accelerates. How leaders listen, demonstrate empathy and engage emotionally with individuals is critical to effective organizational change. Without that sense of connection, change fatigue sets in, and real transformation fails.
  • Solving problems collaboratively. In prolonged disruption, we may become even more dependent on others to help us find solutions to problems. Yet with more virtualized teams and distributed decision-making, tensions and conflicts tend to rise.

These skills may or may not make the top-five list when you survey your internal customers and HR partners. However, the current crisis is teaching us that they are indispensable, and it is up to L&D to make the case. The good news is that organizations seem to recognize, in the midst of the current “new normal,” that L&D plays a critical role in BCP. In our recent survey, 92% of talent leaders responded that their companies’ leadership is recognizing, to some extent, L&D’s role in business continuity.

So, How Do We Step Up to the BCP Role? 

Having a seat at the BCP table means helping colleagues from other functions recognize two critical elements of BCP that they may not routinely plan for: the human element required to effectively make use of the capabilities they are building and the need for resilience when faced with longer-lasting disruption. To make the case, we should keep a couple of things in mind.

We have to be prepared to speak their language. BCP discussions typically focus on redundancy, readiness and rehearsals. Our task, in part, is to enable the operational outcomes our business colleagues seek. Start where they are (the material requirements of continued operations), and work backwards to the mindset and behaviors required to operate effectively under such conditions. Then, move on to the capability building and learning that needs to take place before crisis or must be enhanced in the midst of sustained challenges. We also can guide our operations peers to consider how continuity depends upon our people engaging externally with customers and suppliers. We should also emphasize that working internally – across a complicated organizational matrix where the lines of command and control are already fuzzy – gets even more blurred when our workforce is virtual or otherwise displaced.

As a trusted partner, we want to influence their thinking. But, influence doesn’t mean just advocating for our program. Learning leaders have to participate in the BCP conversation with sufficient curiosity and humility, so that we can work together to find a better answer than either of us could on our own.

“In times of challenge, L&D can be the ‘internal voice’ of the organization,” noted one participant during a recent learning lab we facilitated among L&D leaders. “We can be of great assistance to leaders working to drive change through these challenging times.”