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I rarely pay much attention to the news, don’t subscribe to newspapers and don’t actually watch scheduled news programming. I guess the main reason for my indifference to the news as a whole is as a result of never actually feeling that I came away empowered or more knowledgeable as a result of watching a news program or reading a newspaper. It is not that I want to deny the actuality of the day, it is simply, that for the most part I have no use for it. Technology news is a little different and news that is very specific to things that impact or have the potential to impact me every day are more pertinent to me, I guess I feel that if it is important enough, I am going to ‘discover’ it anyway.

Every cloud could have a disastrous lining

The recent regional disasters, earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China did not really feature on my radar, in part because I know no one intimately who was affected and secondly because I simply don’t follow the news and wasn’t directly impacted. In the 1980’s I ‘discovered’ Haiti because I had a cousin living there who was Impacted by the coup d’état. Were it not for the fact that she was living there I probably would still think it was off the coast of France; well not really, but I think you understand what I mean. The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland has affected a group of friends living in Europe and the Middle East as a result of flight cancellations. Each of them does a daily update of their Facebook profile relating their trials and tribulations as they try to wend their way home from wherever they were stranded. Were it not for these fascinating recreational eWidgets called Facebook and Twitter I would probably never know that they were impacted at all. Some colleagues from work were scheduled to leave this Sunday past, for the PLM 2010 conference in Milan and of course now their plans have been scuppered by the unavailability of flights etc, all rather inconveniencing. I suppose the mails willl be delayed, the packages and shipments of goods by air cargo will be affected and anything else that relies on air transportation.     

There hasn’t been a great deal of news about anything other than the disruption of flights for passengers for now, the UK’s Royal Navy has plans to dispatch a ‘rescue ship’ and friends and possibly colleagues have resorted to trains and automobiles to get to where they need to, in the absence of available flights was featured on the wires and I saw some comments by individuals on how their private businesses were affected. I picked up today that insurers are bleating about insurance claims and airlines are whining about having to compensate passengers in ‘kind’ for displacement, eventualities that they say their insurance was not designed for (most of the carriers are probably self insurers). Brussels and Frankfurt International were able to mobilize cots for stranded passengers whereas Paris and London airports failed miserably in making accommodations for stranded passengers.  Some of these facilities obviously had good plans…. The most interesting thing to come out of these events has to be the fact that there Is a ‘fear’ around the plume of volcanic ash and dust and what It will do to the jet engines and yet there is no real certainty on damage that will be caused.

I for one, am glad that there is caution being brought to bear but do wonder at the disaster recovery planning or lack of it, that was made around this kind of event. We may not live with volcanic eruptions everyday but surely there is lots of other muck in the atmosphere that is equally harmful to jet engines, they have terrible  dust storms in the middle east and still manage to take off and land airplanes, we are afterall, not talking about flying through a storm of frozen chickens?

It is entirely possible that this little Eyjafjallajökull volcano could go on spewing junk into the atmosphere for months and that it’s neighbor Katla might also erupt and that the whole  of Europe is showered with this nasty ash for ages.   Icelandic journalist and writer Iris Erlingsdottir has some interesting updates on the topic for those of you that are sufficiently interested and while the human story is interesting, the plight of the wildlife and domestic animals (particularly the Icelandic ponies) is of concern because, after-all these poor beasties are clueless about what is happening. According to the BBC there is a risk of fluoride poisoning for them and anything else that breathes in or ingests too much of the ash, so maybe flight disruptions are just the beginning of some bigger issues looming?

Futures in Icelandic Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity planning?

It’s kind of funny that back in 2007 the Icelandic government was touting data centers in Europe and the US with opportunities to take advantage of “stable temperatures, a stable economy, and yes, cheap power, thanks to the country’s hot springs and waterfalls.” Well ok, the economy tanked and now it seems those stable temperatures are not so stable.  Just as recently as January of this year there was continued promotion of the opportunities presented by hosting in Iceland. Now, admittedly, Iceland is a big place and these data centers are not necessarily on the slopes of the volcanoes but it is nonetheless interesting that Iceland, which is the epicenter of the current disruption of business travel was positioning itself as a DR and BC opportunity for Europe and the US at least.  Taking a look at the international submarine cable network you can see that CANTAT-3 connects Canada, Germany, the UK and Denmark via Iceland and the Faeroes. Others include regional links DANICE, Greenland Connect and  FARICE-1. From a risk perspective then, it seems that the global undersea cable risks are less cause for concern. For any company based in the region and heavily reliant naturally there must be some anxiety.  

In past lives I have been involved in a wide array of DRM initiatives in various companies, from concerns around urban decayis impact on data centers positioned in such environments, to DR planning for possible SCUD attacks or fall-out from invasion by hostile neighboring countries. In one  instance, I remember us discovering that the new data center was placed in a facility located on a flood plain that hadn’t seen any significant flooding in more than 50 years. The year following the placement, the datacenter was almost flooded by unseasonal rainfall. The one element that held out in all of these adventures, is that there is one thing you can be sure of, and that is that your DR plan is incomplete. This idea shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, you can’t plan for every eventuality but of course it suggests that you should be continuously reconsidering your plans and at very least visiting them regularly to make sure that they are relevant and pertinent.  The same should hold true for your SAP system and disaster recovery planning.  A number of professional services companies offer DR planning services but at an operational level every business unit should have some sort of DR plan as part of their operational playbook. Disaster  takes many forms, it can be something as seemingly insignificant as a person quitting or something as tragic as the loss of an entire department of people. People are just one element but an often overlooked one, the other elements are of course accidental damage to your SAP system or the compromise of the underlying technology or infrastructure that supports your SAP system.   

A plan for people and processes

Technologists and facilities people usually have some good and robust approaches to mitigating the underlying technology or infrastructure risks but the people and process elements may be more difficult to plan for.  One way to help with risk mitigation around people and process is to use robust, standardized and repeatable processes that use tried and tested technologies. In this space, Microsoft Excel integration with SAP can be a help. The ability to distill an SAP transaction into a BDC like recording script with an underlying Microsoft Excel workbook that structures data entry can be a boon to not only productivity and efficiency but can also help in demonstrating risk mitigation to your ISO or BCDR auditors.  The strength of something resident in a Microsoft Excel workbook is often the fact that the data often starts here or at least makes one visit through a workbook before it is captured in SAP. Secondly, most office workers are familiar with the Microsoft Excel interface, or at least sufficiently familiar that they know how to enter data, respond to data validation criteria warnings  in the workbook and perform basic Microsoft Excel functions.

The same is not necessarily true of the SAP interface. An interesting study undertaken by Keystone Strategy LLC and sponsored by Microsoft  revealed some interesting discussion points about the SAP UI when compared with Microsoft’s own ERP, the most important of which I feel, was the comment that “It takes too long to learn how to work with this software” . We are so accustomed to the ability to make instantaneous use of things that user manuals and printed copies of documentation have virtually disappeared from the packaging BOM of a wide array of items we buy, and as any experienced SAP user will tell you, there are nuances to using the SAP interface that may prove challenging to new users or require training beyond a ‘quick show’, some things are just not intuitive to new users, they need proper training.  A study in 2003 by Nucleus Research  estimated that it takes approximately 49 hours to train a user at a cost of $25 per hour. For a 5-man department, this would add at least $6,125 to your BCDR plan and cost 6 man-weeks in productivity before you could get your personnel up to speed with operations.

In journalist Bill Buford’s television program on food and cooking, he describes how in the kitchen a new team member at a station is shown just once what to do,  from there on out, they are basically on their own and expected to repeat the process. This would be a great feat in almost any work setting however, in an office this is pretty unreasonable and as we know, the SAP system is unforgiving with respect to human entry errors. 

Simplifying  the complexity of the SAP transaction through Microsoft Excel integration is just one way to help. Of course you can also implement portal based ‘business user views’ and develop custom ABAP transactions to simplify the process but all of these other approaches typically have a long lifecycle for implementation and a not insignificant cost.

If you plan to dust that ash off your current disaster recovery plan, give consideration to an approach to business continuity and disaster recovery that appropriately positions the use of Microsoft Excel with SAP integration as one of the operational efficiency strategies that shortens the data entry learning curve and rapidly accelerates speed and assures data entry integrity in mass data entry and maintenance across activities in potentially  all SAP GUI transactions.

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