Posted on HBR Editors' Blog: April 27, 2009 1:00 PM
"Should a pandemic emerge," wrote Dr. Jeffrey Staples in HBR's 2006 special report on avian flu, "it would become the single greatest threat to business continuity and could remain so for up to 18 months." Staples' warning is just as relevant today, though the threat, as you've probably heard, is from swine flu.
The outbreak that is believed to have killed more than 100 in Mexico and sickened dozens of others from North America to New Zealand could take any course: it may be relatively mild and quickly contained—or it could explode into a deadly pandemic that closes borders, severs supply chains, shuts down businesses and kills thousands. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international health emergency on Sunday, though it didn't raise the Pandemic Threat Level, its gauge of the chance the flu could become a global epidemic. Still, as Staples wrote, "little stands between best-and-worst-case scenarios."
What should business do in this unpredictable environment? Obviously, avoiding nonessential travel to areas with confirmed cases is wise, as is discouraging presenteeism (employees coming to work sick) and practicing sensible infection control.
But as important, companies need to be sure they have plans in place for the worst case. The 1918-1919 influenza killed an estimated 50 million people. How would your company manage if a third of its workforce dropped out because of sickness, quarantines, travel bans, or fear of contagion? What would you do if a main office overseas suddenly went dark or your CEO fell ill and died? What if your trading partners closed their borders?
Whether this swine flu outbreak becomes a pandemic is anybody's guess; that there will be a global flu pandemic in the future is virtually certain. In the next pandemic, continuity plans developed now may determine which companies prevail and which flounder or fail.
The advice in these articles from our avian flu special report is essential reading for business, whether a pandemic materializes this time or not. Below you can find links to all of the stories in the special report.
A New Type of Threat: Preparing for the Disruption of Global Business
by Jeffrey Staples
The Science: How a Human Pandemic Could Start
by Scott F. Dowell and Joseph S. Bresee
The Organization: Survival of the Adaptive
by Nitin Nohria
The Leader: Leading for the Long Run
by Warren G. Bennis
Preparedness: Pandemic Planning Checklist for Businesses
Communication: Getting Straight Talk Right
by Baruch Fischhoff
Modeling: Visualizing Your Vulnerabilities
by Baruch Fischhoff
Avian Flu Resources
Policy: What to Expect from Government
by Larry Brilliant
The Law: Limiting Exposure—of the Legal Kind
by Peter Susser
Test Case: A Preview of Disruption
by Sherry Cooper
Conversation: Staying Connected
An Interview with William MacGowan
Global Impact: All Eyes on China
by Wendy Dobson and Brian R. Golden