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Some thoughts on professional societies

Some thoughts on professional societies

Getting into any career is tricky. Employers are looking for the perfect combination of both knowledge and experience. Fresh out of University you have to try extra hard to demonstrate that you can actually do the job, not just talk about it.

That was the position I found myself in almost 13 years ago. I spent countless days completing applications; labouring the point that “yes, I might have only ever worked in a shop, but you can definitely trust me not to screw this up”.

One way I could show employers that they could put their faith in me was to join a professional association. These bodies are designed to represent the interests of those in the field, so if I was a member it would enhance my legitimacy. Not one to do things by halves, I joined no less than 4 professional associations.

I did my research beforehand, of course.

Some of these organisations had a specific focus, others were more general. Some had active online communities, others were more traditional.

As a fledgeling emergency manager, I thought it was a good idea to try and learn from as much of this as possible. That way I could tell employers I not just only understood the job, but I also understood the profession and the direction it was travelling.

I’m no longer a member of any of those organisations that I joined.

Professional societies, at least those that I joined, had failed to move with the times. The challenges facing the profession now are not the same as those before critical UK legislation was introduced. The risk environment has changed, and the profession seems to be struggling to keep up.

Although, I think there were more fundamental issues holding those societies back

  1. Ego – None of these societies are sufficiently large in membership that they require the level of process that most of them have. Beacurcracy tends to override what could be helpful information exchange platforms.
  2. Identity crisis – There’s a shift towards a more holistic concept of resilience which is not reflected in the scope of the professional bodies. Emergency Planning, that’s too focused on ‘plans’. Civil Defence – that’s an outdated term from the 50’s. Business Continuity – that’s too defined by formal standards.
  3. Lack of value to members – having been associated with a range of bodies for at least the last 8 years I cannot honestly say that it has been worth the investment either financially or in terms of benefits gained.
  4. Unrepresentative leadership – those employed in emergency management when I first started my career often had military or security backgrounds. At the practitioner level that is changing, and new perspectives are being introduced, but the makeup of the decision makers in many of the professional organisations has not kept pace with the changing demographics of the field.

I don’t like to just sit on the fringes and criticise. If I see an issue I want to try and resolve it. For one of the bodies, I worked with similarly enthusiastic colleagues to solve some of these problems. However, after 18 months of trying different things and volunteering my own time, the same issues remained.

That organisation in particular alienated its members through sporadic, ill-conceived communication and disrespected its own volunteers. For a body designed to support members, it showed an extreme lack of empathy.

Contrast that with the sense of camaraderie and community I’ve seen online from my SMEMchat colleagues. This eclipses anything I have seen in over 10 years of being a member of a society.

There are, of course, many ways of doing things; I’m not simply suggesting that everything should move online. But if professionals are going to continue to support each other (and I really hope they do) then it might be time for a more radical rethink of how this is best achieved.

I feel no sense of loyalty to bodies which didn’t demonstrate any to me. However, I do feel a sense of loyalty to my colleagues, whether I work directly with them, or our paths haven’t crossed yet.

Everything that we do as a profession is a team effort. There are many ways that we can collaborate without the stuffiness of societies.

The gestation of exercise artificiality

The gestation of exercise artificiality

The theme for Business Continuity Awareness Week 2015 is about the value of exercising and testing plans. Having facilitated, participated and observed in my fair share of exercises over the last 8 years I’ve reached the conclusion that they’re a waste of time. Worse than that, I think a bad exercise can do more harm than good. I know that’s not going to be popular, so let me explain what I mean…

The process of exercising is designed to validate the assumptions in a plan (or elements of a plan). This is a process which I absolutely think is necessary, but one which, all to often, isn’t effective.

From full-blown reconstructions to glossy media injects, exercise planners or consultants do their best to make the exercise environment realistic. However, this realism tends to evaporate quickly.

I think the problem with exercising starts in the planning phase. Committees meet for months before an exercise to determine locations to use, dates and times, who should participate and what scenarios to use. I think these conversations are pointless, here’s why:

Location: Don’t take people out to a nice conference venue. Yes it’s lovely to have refreshments on tap, but does it familiarise people with the locations they could be working in? If your plan identifies an emergency operations centre, use it! If that facility has a ‘business as usual’ function then make staff there aware that it also serves another function and so they need a business continuity plan themselves! If your facilities are poor all the more reason to use them – it might just help secure investment!

Date and Time: Incidents often happen without warning, therefore so should your exercises. There are some dangers associated with no-notice exercises, but planning in advance can mitigate this. Nor do incidents always respect the convenience of occurring within office hours. Think about conducting your exercises outside of normal office hours. A plan that works effectively at 3am on a Sunday is a good plan!

Invitees: Don’t invite people to your exercise. That might sound a bit odd, but anyone with a defined role in a plan has a responsibility to participate in exercises. The planning process should identify 24/7 contact details for people able to undertake the roles identified. Use those contacts! For instance: if you have a Duty Director on-call, call them. If you use a telephone tree or other alerting system, test it in anger to see if it works.

Scenario: Unlike the three aspects above, picking the right scenario is important. However, beware of falling into the trap of picking a scenario and designing objectives to fit. The focus should be on your capability to respond to issues, the scenario is just a vehicle to facilitate that.

In my opinion, the only two aspects that should be discussed before an exercise are the objectives (what are you trying to learn) and the evaluation (how do you plan to learn it).

Objectives: Exercises really do work best when the objectives are specific and measurable. Specific objectives need to be developed at a high level in advance of the exercise. They should be made clear to all participants so they have a shred understanding about the purpose of the exercise. Don’t be scared of having lots of specific objectives, they’re far more useful than an all-encompassing generic objective like “demonstrate an understanding of plans and procedures”.

Evaluation: There is no correlation between the size of an exercise and its utility. If you’re only interested in whether people can communicate then think about a simple communications test. If you’re interested in how people perform under pressure then look at job-task analyses. The easier an objective is to measure objectively the more confident you can be in your evaluation. Part of your evaluation discussion should also identify the next steps. Have a system in place to make sure you don’t learn identical lessons from one exercise to the next.

Avoid the pitfalls, concentrate on the objectives and exercises can be useful in validating your plans. Happy Business Continuity Week!