data directions: What if Your Plug Gets Pulled?

Here I am at Disney World (no, I am not rubbing it in, just using those frequent flyer miles!), and the strangest thing happened. Along the Pleasure Island boardwalk, at about 8 o'clock at night, all the power went off. If you have ever been to Disney, you know they rely on power and lots of it!

Virtually every store had to close. A few had some alternative power source and stayed open. It was very interesting to see how everyone handled it. Keep in mind that this was Christmas time with all the trees and lights. All went dark.

The stores that closed had no light and no way to check customers out! The scanners and registers obviously did not work. Even more amusing (for me anyway) was that the new Disney Quest -- a totally interactive virtual amusement park of 5 floors -- went dark. Just think of it - everything must be plugged in or it won't work. Oops! The Disney Pleasure Island – a land of seven or so stages and nightclubs – was all dark and quiet. How nice and peaceful it was, unless you worked inside.

When we finally dragged ourselves back to our room, I heard that San Francisco had lost power that day too. I am sure the two were not related, but you never know. Anyway, it got me to thinking about our vulnerability to power outages and our electronic systems.

Anyone reading this column spends a fair amount of his or her time working with technology that needs to be plugged in. We have been worrying about Y2K issues that will come – and go – and we will keep doing business. We are spending lots of money making sure that the New Year does not mess us up too much. Maybe we should take a quick look at how well prepared we are if something more likely occurs, like no power for an extended period of time.

I know many of you have disaster recovery plans and spend lots of money on hot sites and backup plans, all of which assume that some power exists somewhere where you can get at it. What if it can't? Now don't worry, I am not talking about an Armageddon type problem, but something as simple as a power worker or digger cutting a power line. What do you do if it’s a couple of days before power is restored?

As silly as this sounds, you could just shut down for a while -- but most of us really don't want to do that. It was not all that long ago that most order entry systems did not rely on the computer until after the order was taken, and in some cases, until after it shipped. So why should the world stop if the power flickers? Maybe retail stores would be in trouble because we all know that no one working the counter could ever add up the three items we purchased and then add tax (remember those little yellow tax tables?).

But those of us with warehouses, could, if we were prepared, write up orders and pick from those orders if we had to. We just forget about it until it is too late.

I'm not saying that we should spend lots of time and money preparing for this. However, just a little planning would go a long way toward being prepared.

Do you need preprinted order forms for manual entry? No, just use the ones from the printer. If you use laser forms, just write it. What you really need anyway is name, address, item, quantity. The rest is just for tracking (which won't work for a while anyway).

Yes Virginia, this will mess up your data entry for the next few days. Some orders may fall through the cracks. One or two may even be shipped without the correct credit approval, but the other orders will go through, our inventory will get picked and shipped. And most importantly, our customers will find out that we can keep running when a problem hits. That we put them first! And that's what really counts in the end, isn't it? That, and of course we did create some billing during the crisis.

My point is that with a little forethought, you can have a plan if a crisis happens and not get caught with your shorts down. After all, that's part of your job, even if everyone else thinks you’re nuts. Most us should be able to keep our organizations running for awhile if our computers completely failed. If not, maybe we should take a look at our procedures.

Obviously, if all your orders come in over the Internet, your strategy needs to be different (like have a backup host in another city!). The key is not having to think through everything on the fly, have some things prepared for. And most of all, keep it simple. If you need to do training classes for this, then it's already too complicated.

Our businesses are depending more and more on technology. Some of it we like, some we don't, but it is happening whether or not we agree with it. But we never want to be in a position to shut down if there is a burp in our power or computer systems. We should always be able to struggle through it.

When I was in the Navy, we learned (the hard way) that if there is ever a fire on board while you were at sea, you put it out, no matter what! The alternative is just not an option. So why can't your business keep going just because Tom Edison pulled the plug for a little while?

John Bussert is president of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company specializing in AS/400 and Windows NT software.