Keith Tilley believes that companies outside the financial services sector are generally unaware of the damage that downtime causes and of how to prevent it

It is easy to see that, in large financial institutions, minutes of downtime can cost millions of pounds, but are other businesses aware of the effect that losing access to information and systems can have? It seems to me that in other sectors there can be a general lack of awareness of the damage that downtime causes to business, and of the systems which can ensure that businesses can compete in the age of the continuous enterprise.

The borders of the real-time revolution have been drawn, and response time means money. Today, we live in an 'always-on' culture where information is the new world currency and lifeblood of any organisation. The abundance of enterprises that use technology to run their organisations continuously, has led to an unprecedented degree of customer promiscuity. It used to be that if I wanted a new TV and the local shop did not have the right model, I would have to drive to the next shop to get it. Now a competitor offering the same item is only two clicks away. We have become a society that stands, impatiently in front of our microwaves watching the seconds tick by. How many times have you stood in front of the ATM, astounded that it has taken all of ten seconds to give you your money?

Consumers expect organisations' systems to perform at the highest levels all the time, and while customer loyalty is not quite so ephemeral in the business-to-business environment, the same trend holds true. Information availability is crucial in business, as unavailable or delayed information is wrong information - imagine an investment fund being five minutes out of the loop on share price information when a take-over is announced. Due to the rise of this culture of promiscuity, companies expect their suppliers' systems to interlink with theirs and perform at the same levels of reliability and availability. If systems and information are not always available, then customers will go elsewhere, because the supply chain is only as strong as the weakest link.

Reliant and complacent - a risky combination

The strange fact is that the more reliant we become on technology to deliver information, the more complacent we are that it will work - every single time. When it comes to business, this is a little like someone that knows absolutely nothing about engines racing in a Grand Prix tournament without having a dedicated pit team that knows what is going on under the bonnet.

On a basic level, if you are driving your business through the internet, its ability to reach and connect millions of people is excellent, but it also increases your dependence on IT. If surfers are faced with 'website not found', or if your supply chain does not reflect the actual amount of stock on your shelves you have a problem. Whether disruption is caused by fire, flood or quake, the more people who are dependent on your information - and who cannot access it - the greater the liability you have. The most common IT stoppage is a failure of internet connection. Ironically the second most reported cause of IT failure, computer viruses, are caused when your connection is up and running and the business is exposed to the internet.

Managing human capital

Even if your business is not reliant on an internet front end, the chances are that your staff rely heavily on PCs. After the failure of internet connections, and virus attacks, the PC is the most vulnerable part of the IT infrastructure. Despite this, desktop PCs are rarely as well protected as servers. Where organisations require ever higher levels of staff productivity they need an IT infrastructure resilient enough to ensure that staff have the tools to make it happen. The inability of an individual to function does not automatically bring a business to its knees, but kinks in activity chains are damaging to both productivity and continuity. When you consider that labour costs are the single largest component of business expense, you would think that businesses would want to ensure that their tools are as switched on as they expect staff to be.

E-mail is a great example of a tool, which, after decades of use is now taken for granted. Its prominent role in sales and services makes it a critical business enabler. Businesses depend on e-mail for revenue, and customers expect to be able to contact their suppliers through e-mail. This level of reliance demands strategic planning to ensure that lack of availability is kept to an absolute minimum. Whatever the cause of IT failure, be it on server or desktop, there should be no excuse for data loss because everyone backs up their computers - don't they? In the main they do, but there is still a worrying number of businesses that, due to a lack of resources and time, do not have any formal routines for backing up data, or rely on a superficial effort, such as an automated solution.

Managing complexity for growth

As businesses grow, they embrace more complex technologies. However, although information is key to business success, the technology that provides it is an enabler for the business, not the business itself. Regulation, compliance, utility costs, and supply chain requirements all need to be controlled, and IT is fundamental to maintaining this control. But ultimately, business leaders need to be careful that developing and maintaining the IT infrastructure to establish this control does not become an all-consuming task for an in-house department. By taking the time to standardise processes from the start, businesses can ensure protection against today's threats to information availability. Knowing what parts of the infrastructure to outsource, and when, will guard against those that emerge in the future.

Developing a continuity culture

Information availability is becoming more critical, not just because businesses are reliant on it, but because business regulators expect data retention levels which only a well-managed approach to continuity can deliver. A company's culture transcends its people. As companies grow, good or bad continuity practice can become embedded in their operations. A company that starts on the kitchen table may, if successful, end up working across multiple premises. If a continuity culture is inaugurated from the outset, it will be carried with the business on that journey. Far better to establish a continuity culture when the business is still small than to try and correct it when it has grown and inefficiencies have become embedded.

Sungard's Ten Golden Tips for Information Availability

1. A holistic approach to information management develops integrated IT solutions to protect your most critical systems by improving their robustness and availability - take a look at what could happen or has happened to competitors

2. Understand the environment and people that your information interacts with in your organisation

3. Consider the financial benefits of outsourcing business continuity(BC): businesses that outsource BC typically realise an 80% reduction in initial expenditure and a 75% reduction in revenue loss per incident

4. Understand the risks posed by your business ecosystem. Cost of downtime per industry is not constant. Downtime in brokerage and credit card sales historically have the largest downtime expenditure

5. Get buy-in across the whole organisation. Dedicated BC managers and teams can help to understand organisational objectives and cultural nuances

6. Test your availability and continuity plan at least once a year per systems platform. This ensures your plan is in sync with business and technology changes

7. Refine your recovery plan after regular tests, to evolve your organisation's information availability

8. Never ignore the threats from within - a company is only as strong as its most vulnerable element

9. Do not try to cover everything to the same level.Identify the mission-critical business functions and determine how soon they need to be available following a disaster

10. Ensure your supplier is financially stable and has a proven track record of working with similar types and sizes of companies. Look at what constitutes best-in-class information availability in other sectors - this should be your benchmark.