A matter of discipline
Written by Christopher Andrews
The practice of business continuity has changed dramatically in recent years and so too has the attitude towards pursuing it as a career. Christopher Andrews looks at how education and training has responded and asks what the future might hold for business continuity professionals
It is probably fair to say that for a young Oxbridge graduate keen to work in the City, business continuity management has not generally been their first choice of career; investment banking or hedge fund management probably gets the blood flowing a bit more quickly.
Indeed, for most business continuity practitioners, the term 'fell into the job' often describes how they ended up in their position, but it seems that this is starting to change, with business continuity slowly becoming recognised as a viable career path in its own right. "In the earlier years most of the people that worked in business continuity management tended to come into it from other disciplines, and they were usually, shall we say, in the middle to later stages of a business career, whether that be IT or some other specialisation," says Lyndon Bird, international and technical director at the BCI. "But there was not really a perception of this as a career in itself, and therefore you didn't get students coming out of the universities looking specifically for roles in business continuity. That has certainly changed quite a lot in recent years."
This isn't to say that high flying graduates are knocking down the doors trying to get into business continuity, and for the academically minded the lack of postgraduate studies in the subject speaks volumes about the idea of business continuity as a career in its own right. While there are plenty of short training courses available, as well as professional qualifications, in terms of rigorous academic programmes at masters level, there is very little out there.
"I think that part of the problem with incorporating business continuity management into academic courses in the past is that it may have been seen as a practical operational discipline, rather than one that leads itself to an academic body of knowledge that you can actually teach, study and do research in," says Bird. "I don't think that's true, but there is probably a perception that risk management is more intellectually challenging, with perhaps a broader base body of knowledge that you could work on, and that business continuity was a rather narrow specialisation that was difficult to turn into an academic syllabus and course."
This is not to say that business continuity is ignored at masters level. Most universities offering masters courses in some element of risk management offer a degree of business continuity within them, generally as one of several modules comprising the course. One such course is offered by Cranfield University. Its Resilience MSc is now in its second year of operation, and is geared towards students who are already working in related risk management fields, including emergency services, emergency planning for local authorities or business, the police and similar. The course is divided into eight one-week residential slots over two years, with students eventually completing a dissertation. Director of Cranfield's Resilience Centre, Hazel Smith, says there are two broad levels of interest in the course: those who work on business continuity and resilience at home, coordinating crisis response in the UK, and those that tend to work in international humanitarian response.
Again, this is not specifically a business continuity programme, with business continuity offered as one of several elective modules within the greater resilience framework. Says Smith: "In terms of academic discipline there is no academic discipline called 'business continuity', there isn't even an academic discipline called 'resilience'. So when you set these things up you have to decide if you're not offering a training course - which is easy in business continuity - then what are you actually offering to the students?"
CHALKING UP EXPERIENCE
Smith says that for Cranfield, the most appropriate disciplinary frameworks are political science for such topics as risk and security, and management studies, as a lot of what can be taught in this discipline is really management science. "So how do organisations work, what are the pressure points, how do organisations collapse, how do you prevent that, how are they different from each other.
"In a way when addressing business continuity we're giving an old problem a new name, which isn't a bad thing." Smith contends that business continuity is not a discipline in its own right, adding that she would be very surprised if a masters in it were structured and offered unless it were simply a reworking of a masters in management studies. "That wouldn't be illegitimate, so long as you made it clear what you were doing. We've chosen business continuity as an aspect of a way of dealing with risk in a resilience context, which works for us," she says.
What Smith says certainly rings true in light of the conspicuous absence of specific masters courses available. Again though, this isn't to say that it isn't being covered; in some cases it is starting to be given a much heavier emphasis. Bucks New University, for example, has just developed a programme which will be fully up and running in January. Its MSc in Business Continuity, Security and Emergency Management is an 18 month programme based on three six month modules. Within each module there are three two-day workshops at the university, so this is primarily a distance learning programme. As with the Cranfield MSc, most of the students signed up for the course are looking to apply it to their current work, according to the university's principal lecturer in security, Phillip Wood.
"This is very much an emerging discipline - if you talk about business continuity people don't understand what it is; they think it's just about backing up your computers. It's...fairly niche at the moment, and I think there's a lot more work that could and should be done to establish it as a discipline and as a relevant business process. To me, business continuity is in the same place as health and safety. It's one of those pains in the backside that people just expect to be switched on when things go wrong. And of course it won't if we don't do it properly."
To do it properly, of course, means having the right kind of training; and as with any properly established field, this should include the possibility of rigorous academic study. The problem then relates to seeing business continuity as the career in its own right mentioned by Bird. If the perception isn't there then universities aren't going to design courses in this field, and if courses aren't offered then students won't see this as a valid career, and the wheel turns...
"It's really an essential development that universities start offering business continuity either in MBA programmes or running research based MScs where the theoretical part is covered in line with what the BCI is saying and then they do research on a related topic," says Bird. "And there are an increasing number of people who approach us as an institute and say this is a career direction they want."
But not everyone sees business continuity in the same light. "The industry in general, if there is in fact a business continuity industry, and I'm not sure there is, should be looking to present something that those coming into the discipline can access right from the start," says Wood. He reiterates that business continuity, security and emergency management are mainly taken up by those in their second careers. "[Based on military experience or similar] they decide that they're going to be good at this and find themselves employment. That's not always the best way. While in many cases the kind of training and preparation that people have had in their previous careers does help to contextualise these things, we need to try and be a little more flexible in our thought, and consider the benefits of a whole life's career in business continuity [rather than something you just fall into]."
This is where serious academic consideration of the subject would help. But that's not to say without that consideration younger people will not move into the field.
Tiggy Thiagarajah is emergency procedures manager, Flight Ops, at Virgin Atlantic Airways. Now in his mid thirties, he says that he is very much 'old school', coming into the profession in 1998. But even Thiagarajah, who is relatively young for his level of responsibility, didn't leave university knowing his future lay in this industry.
"I went to University in 1993 and I don't think there were any disaster management/business continuity courses around and it certainly wasn't a career path I intended to focus on. My career path was one of chance. Having project managed the Y2K bug for a major airline, my natural movement was to go into contingency planning for other events. This led to setting up a corporate recovery centre in conjunction with an IT disaster recovery plan. After which, through experience, I went on to lead our crisis management team to respond to many different events worldwide.
"A lot of my experiences have been just that. Although I have attended various courses in my time through Easingwold, Kenyon and so on, none of these really added to my knowledge that I had gained in doing my job. Having said that, when I recruit for people to join my team, I do now look for specific qualifications as I believe there is a lot more out there focusing on this type of work."
While there may be a lot more than there was 15 years ago, as noted it's still pretty limited. Hopefully as employers begin looking for qualifications in their practitioners, universities will take notice of the importance of this field and...give more credence to it in their MBA courses. It is only by raising that academic profile that this will become seen as a viable career option from the get-go.