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BlackswanHunting the Black Swans in Your Continuity Program

This is the twelfth in the DRG ongoing series regarding hunting and mastery of the black swans in your continuity program. Look for it on the first Wednesday of each month, except this month it appears on April 17th!.

"Black Swans" in your Continuity Program are those events that remain outside the range of normal expectations, and may well produce a significant negative impact when they occur. For reasons of budget, culture, or simple lack of awareness, we just do not see or deal with these potentially devastating exposures in our enterprise continuity capability. This series discusses some of the most common of these "black swans" in business continuity programs, those that are really staring us in the face and screaming for attention.

Already published:
Quarry 1: Employee Availability for Response Activities.
Quarry 2: The Level of Individual Employee Commitment to BCM
Quarry 3: Exercising Your Plans
Quarry 4: Exercising Your Plans: Objectives and Annual Programs
Quarry 5: Exercising Your Plans: Business Unit Continuity Plans
Quarry 6: Exercising Your Plans: Technology Recovery Plans
Quarry 7: Exercising Your Plans: Logistics, Communications, and Support Plans
Quarry 8: Lessons Learned
Quarry 9: New Year's Resolutions
Quarry 10: 10 Steps to Building a Black Swan-free Business Continuity Management Program
Quarry 11: New Year's Resolutions

Quarry 12: Developing "Black Swan Sighting" Skills: Warm-up Exercises

Like many other skills, "seeing" black swans takes practice and practice more practice. Exercising your brain to develop familiar and comfortable analytical paths is what will get you there. And so here begins a series of exercises to increase your agility and your perception of ALL of those areas where a link in the chain can break. Just to keep you (and me) on our toes, each of these columns will also identify how a particular black swan (a broken link in a chain) may be connected to a link in two other chains, thus affecting the overall fabric of the inter-connected chains that make up our world.

Let's start with a few basics just to stretch and warm up our mental muscles. We will look at two of the most fundamental requirements to life: AIR and WATER. (Remember that people are essential to most business operations…..)

First, let's take AIR. Start with just one of its uses.

We all need to breathe air (or at least the oxygen component) in order to stay alive. Let's take a short look at what are the some of the "useful" characteristics of air.

  • Composed of certain gases in specific proportions.
  • Density varies with altitude. "Normal" is at sea level.
  • Moving at an acceptable speed.
  • Kept within an acceptable temperature range.
  • Containing an "acceptable" level of poisons and other pollutants that affect its performance when inhaled by living beings or used by machinery.

Now let's look narrowly at what changes can create breaks in just the chain of human respiration:

  • Excessive movement: Wind, tornadoes, hurricanes
  • Lower oxygen content (for example, at high elevations).
  • Contamination: bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals, toxic gases
  • Presence of small to large contaminants: dust, sand, insects, any toxic solid and visible substances, small to large objects carried on high winds.
  • Faster or slower speed of movement than normal (other than weather conditions)
  • Absence of air (as in running out of air in a scuba tank, water rapidly filling a submerged automobile, etc.)
  • Changes in major global air currents, such as the Jetstream

I am certain that you can think of many others, some of which are just variants of the above, such as air enriched with a higher percentage of oxygen for those with breathing difficulties, or filtered air to keep critical manufacturing and other environments sterile. You could probably spend a week tracing just the obvious links to other chains.

It is clear that the absence of breathable air with the "correct" mix of gases, at an acceptable level of movement speed and without significant contamination, is necessary to sustain human life. And all animal life. But oxygen is also necessary for a large number of other industrial processes such as welding, which requires combustion. Combustion cannot occur without oxygen. Internal combustion engines (automobiles, trucks, tractors, etc.) need oxygen.

A second-level corollary is that a by-product of the respiration of air by living beings is carbon dioxide, which is essential to plant life. The plants return the favor providing oxygen as a result of their respiration.

And so what other chains is AIR linked to? Here is just the very beginning of that list:

  • Plant respiration; plant growth, food for animal life.
  • Internal combustion engines: all major transport, both individual vehicles and mass transit.
  • Oxygen combines with hydrogen to form H2O: water.
  • Air at the correct temperatures and density, unpolluted by particulates or other substances (such as volcanic ash) is necessary for air transport.

Continue with this list, and then work with each line item. It will quickly become obvious that any major disruption of AIR will lead to important and significant rifts in the interlocking dependency chains that make up our lives on this planet.

Air disturbances create a long series of cascading breaks in many connected chains. Many of these will be black swans. You could even call this a significant tear in the fabric of human and animal existence on the planet.

Let's look now at WATER1, also a critical component supporting human life and all life. First, we look at its uses. Water is an extremely important substance to human life, perhaps second only to oxygen. Here are some of its characteristics.

  • It is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. It is widely regarded as the basis of all life – human, animal, and plant.
  • On average, 57% of the human body is water.
  • It takes on different forms with temperature changes: solid (ice), gaseous (water vapor, steam)
  • Water covers 71% of the earth's surface, with 96.5% in the oceans as salt water.
  • Only 2.5% of Earth's water is fresh water.
  • Safe drinking water is essential to all life forms on the planet.
  • Approximately 70% of the water used by human beings goes to agriculture to sustain plant life.
  • Water is a critical solvent in many chemical processes.
  • Water is a vital component of industrial cooling and transportation.
  • (This list could become very long.)

What are the characteristics of water?

    It can change form from liquid to solid to gas. The liquid form is the most immediately needed by human beings and all other life. Adult human beings need about 2 liters of water/day.
    It is easily contaminated by pathogens or other contaminants, such as particulates, other liquids, chemicals and many substances where it acts as a solvent.
    90% of wastewater generated by humans still goes untreated into rivers and streams.
    It is a non-renewable resource.

What are its uses?2

  • Drinking
  • Sanitation
  • Industrial processes: solvents
  • Power generation
  • Agricultural irrigation
  • Transportation
  • Fire extinction

What are the changes to water that can threaten us?

  • Natural disasters from too much water: floods, blizzards, hail, ice storms, tsunami
  • Lack-of-water impacts: droughts, harvest failures, human and animal death, major negative economic effects

The above impacts illustrate just the very tip of the dependence of human life on water. Because we depend so very much on it to keep our bodies alive, over 5 million people year are thought to die from drinking polluted water.

And so it is not difficult to move to the next stage: to what other chains does water connect, and particularly safe drinking water? Here are just a few.

  • Food production
  • Energy production
  • Transportation
  • Sanitation
  • Human economies
  • Human life on the planet

Your mental muscles should be warmed up now, and you should now have a better understanding of this analytical process. The above analyses on air and water were just the obvious and easy ones. In future columns this year we will be looking at other threatened resources and tracing their impacts on the larger fabric of our wired world. To truly understand black swans and how they can trigger the cascading interconnected risks in the surrounding fabric, you need to develop these mental muscles, which will lead you to far greater facility in understanding the interconnections between the failure of one link in one chain on the fabric of our wired world. THEN you will have the tools you need to see and understand black swans.

About the Author

Kathleen Lucey, FBCI, is President of Montague Risk Management, a business continuity consulting firm founded in 1996. She is a member of the BCI Global Membership Council, past member of the Board of the BCI, and the founding President of the BCI USA Chapter. IBM chose her as the first winner of its Business Continuity Practitioner of the Year Award in 1998. She speaks and publishes widely in both North America and Europe. Kathleen may be reached via email at kathleenalucey@gmail.com.