Welcome to episode 3 of Beyond the Black Stump, my name is Ken Simpson. This episode is one I was looking forward to recording. I wanted to start with some fresh ideas and a relatively new voice, the focus should be the future and change after all.
But it was also important to me to balance that from the start with a different perspective. And my guest today will certainly challenge you to think about different perspectives.
He is one of the old hands in this industry, almost 20 years in practice. He came to the resilience professions with an considerable experience as a manager and entrepreneur. He is a passionate and fearless advocate and one of the most compelling speakers you will find on the international conference circuit.
So come along for the ride and [spp-tweet tweet=”be prepared to hear uncomfortable ideas, because Nathaniel Forbes is regularly thinking beyond the Black Stump”].
- Nat’s Persuade Course – Singapore, 2 November
- If i was in Singapore at that time I would be attending this course, it is highly recommended by people I trust and respect.
If you enjoyed this episode and would like to encourage the show to continue please head over to iTunes and leave a rating, review or comment. I would really appreciate that and it will hopefully promote the show for other people in the industry to find and learn.
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Ken: Nat Forbes, good to speak with you and welcome to the show. How are you?
Nat: Good, thanks.
Ken: We met the first time in Phoenix just recently after quite some time of exchanging emails but unfortunately in these conferences, you never seem to get enough time to ask all the questions of people that you meet. Thank you for coming on and sharing. Let’s start by getting you to talk a bit about yourself. It’s a subject you probably don’t get asked to speak about very often but you’ve had this quite fascinating career.
Looking at your CV, you’ve been a sales manager. You got that experience with profit centre responsibility. You’ve been a pioneer of online lodgement in the US. How the hell does that get someone to coming in to business continuity as an industry?
Nat: Dumb luck. Some people who had invested in my startup company referred me to some fellows who operated a disaster recovery site in Singapore in the mid 1990s, they needed some help so I went to look it over and report back what I thought the company in the United States should do.
They took my advice. I stayed in Singapore. The company didn’t do as well as I did. The company went bankrupt leaving me in Singapore with all my belongings in a shipping container in the middle of the Pacific. No company, no employer, no work permit and no place to live. Unfortunately, I remembered that I was an entrepreneur so I took over. I started a company at Singapore in 1996 to do business continuity planning at the time most people at Asia couldn’t spell BCP, let alone have any idea what it was. Nineteen years later, it paid for two kids to go to college and provided employment for a fairly substantial number of people in Singapore and I had a great run.
Ken: Really, you came into Business Continuity by actually having to practice it for yourself.
Nat: My first disaster recovery project was recovering from having no place to live or work. That’s correct.
Ken: That’s probably one of the most unusual starts. People coming into the industry by dumb luck or being dropped in it is pretty normal I think for our generation but having to do it because of your own continuity problems is unusual.
Ken: That background as an entrepreneur obviously shaped why you got into this in the first place. Coming into the business with management experience, I’m not talking about managing people per se but having to manage profit centre and total accountability for the business and having been an entrepreneur, did that shape the way you look at the practice?
Nat: I didn’t think that was the question you were going to ask me. If you asked me the question did it affect the way I tried to run my business? Very much so. Did it affect the way I practiced business continuity? Not at all. I didn’t know what business continuity was. I was really two chapters ahead of my customer when I first started out. It definitely affected the way I managed the company. I was really affected in the 1990s by a book called “In search of excellence” by Tom Peters.
I believed in the concept of management by wandering around which he promoted. I felt that the most important thing I could do was to treat people who work for me well, knowing that it would be very difficult to find, people who had any experience at all in business continuity 20 years ago. Therefore I was going to have to grow them myself. If I was going to make that investment in them, I wanted to be sure they stopped around.
Ken: It’s again a different concept. We don’t get a lot of conversation about Tom Peters and one of the management principles when we talk to BC people. I’m already seeing a different trend of management. If also while you were in Singapore spent many, many years as the president of the Emergency Management Association in Asia, tell me why the emergency management association, was that just the only thing going in town? Why did you go with that one?
Nat: Two factors came together at once. I had a colleague, somebody who worked with me who was so far as I know the first certified emergency manager by the International Association of Emergency Managers, the IAEM in Asia. He was encouraging me to get involved with IAEM. The second thing I realized that having some expertise in emergency management as opposed to business continuity provided an important competitive advantage over other consultants in Asia who focused on Business Continuity Management for Banks.
I got involved with IAEM because those two factors came together and I got involved quite heavily. I became an officer of the organization and a board member of the International Organization. I spent a number of years trying to build up the organization in Asia.
I’m ran a conference there in 2010 that was pretty well received. I’m thinking in retrospect, there is no culture of emergency management in any of the 28 countries of Asia where our organization recruited members. In the United States, every county, there’s 40,000 counties in the United States and all 40,000 of them are by law required to have somebody who is responsible for emergency management where you live in Australia. Emergency Management, the SES, all that stuff is ingrained in the way public services is run.
That is not true in Asia. I found that it was very difficult to describe to people what emergency management was. Explain why I thought it could be a professional practice, why it could be a career for some people. Today I think that IAEM is struggling in Asia or while the organization still exists.
Ken: Again the right man in the right place to try and get something up and running.
Nat: I think the IAEM in the US were very happy to have an American that they could talk to, one who had quite a lot of experience in starting up organizations from scratch and who have a pretty good mailing list. By the time I got involved with them, I had been in Asia between 10 and 15 years. We had a very large mailing list of people who were at least pretty disposed to interest in emergency management because of their interests in business continuity.
It was lucky for me. It was lucky for them. I had a great time. I met a lot of people who are still very good friends and it did in fact provide the competitive advantage that I was looking for but it’s still pushing wet spaghetti uphill in Asia.
Ken: It’s similar in a lot of places. Let’s move it on to talk about the current state of the industry. When I look at what’s going on today, often seems to me we’re caught between this whole management systems and certification standards desire on one hand and on the other hand we have this desire to label what we do as resilience. How do you see the current state of the nation?
Nat: From a high level, really not significantly different than it was 20 years ago when I first started doing this kind of thing. In professions that I have been, that the people we hang out have been in, as a group, I refer to them as the resilience profession because that’s just faster than saying business continuity emergency management, risk management, crisis management, disaster relief, disaster recovery, disaster management and security, every time you want to describe people who are in the business of protecting lives and property.
I think that those practices focus in the main on picking up the pieces after an event. Yes, we push quite hard to prepare in advance but most often, we are dealing with people who do not see the value in preparing in advance either in the public sector or in the private sector.
I became frustrated with pushing that same wet spaghetti uphill after a number of years and started thinking more about what’s the fundamental problem? I decided it’s basically 10,000 years of development of the human brain. Our brains have developed for 10,000 years to try and manage the animal instincts that our ancestors had thousands of years ago that protected them from being eaten by saber tooth tigers and wooly mammoths.
There’s a fight or flight fear and the human brain has developed over the years in an attempt to control those chemical reactions. I really have become quite a bit more interested in psychology. One of the questions you would ask me earlier or you had sent to me earlier was what do I think about new threats coming up all the time? I don’t see any new threats. I see old threats coming back. I don’t think terrorism is new. I don’t think earthquakes are new. I don’t think tsunamis are new.
I think that the number of disease pandemics we’re having is new but disease itself is not new. We’re basically playing the same record over and over again. We may be playing it to a newer audience. We may have successfully recruited some members of a new generation to become professional emergency managers or professional risk managers but fundamentally we’re still fighting a rear guard action. I have devoted what remains of my career to focusing on persuasion. What is it that will persuade people to take action in the face of what seems to you and me to be very clear, obvious risks.
Ken: Yeah, that’s interesting idea isn’t it? Would you therefore say that there’s not a great deal of difference in principle between say Jessie James or someone of that era knocking down a telegraph wire and hackers and a distributor denial service attack on someone today? You say it’s still a similar a threat, it’s just the scale of impact that’s different.
Nat: Scale, perhaps speed of onset is a bit faster. When you can push a button and bring down a network as opposed to having to climb a telephone pole to snip the wire. Fundamentally, there are natural threats, technical threats and human threats. The nature of them has not changed much and is not likely to change much.
I’m less interested Ken, these days in power failures and bridges falling down than I am in existential threat to human existence. They are for me water, food, population, disease and climate. Those are the things that are going to affect large numbers of people. Those are the things that are going to cause social stress, physical stress, that have significant financial consequences. I think those issues are particularly difficult for people in traditional resilience professional business continuity to deal with and primarily because their speed of onset is generally very slow.
The kind of events that are accustomed dealing with, a sudden power failure, a sudden earthquake, a sudden tsunami, even a pandemic to the extent that we learn about something about pandemics in the last decade. You can see the pandemic coming but people tend to not do anything about it until the guy next door or the guy at work is sick.
That sudden speed of onset makes triggering actions much easier. I know when the power went out because suddenly I’m sitting in the dark. How do I know when I should be thinking about water security or food security or climate change or urban concentrations of population? One person, ten more people, 500 more people, a thousand, a million? It’s very difficult I think in our professions and I’m quite interested in addressing and attacking that phenomenon.
Ken: One of the things that often interest about your work is you’re thinking about issues that very few other people in the industry are talking about. Probably in 23rd and certainly in preparation for WCDM in 23rd, you wrote a document, a post what’s wrong with contingency planning.
I quote a little bit from it, “The ways we practice contingency planning today cannot lead to resilience because we can’t add value if we don’t address the big risks that let us think about. We don’t have all the skills to address them and we deal with only a small fraction of the full range of consequences.
Is that the thinking that led you to addressing those issues? Those are the risks that you’re saying leaders are thinking about.
Nat: Well that was my manifesto and you’re correct I did do that in connection with WCDM two years ago. I wouldn’t change a word of that. I think that manifestly obvious to anybody who works in a resilient profession that what he or she does is not sufficient to achieve organizational or social resilience.
Business continuity is not enough by itself. Being a first aider is not enough by itself. Being an emergency manager or risk manager is not enough by itself. The kinds of skills that we have are not enough to address the consequences of the disasters that we are likely to be faced with in the future. The consequences of water insecurity, the consequences of food security, the consequences of disease, I don’t know many business continuity managers who even know basic first aid or could save a life if a person fell down in front of them.
Does not that seem odd to you that I can run around and say, “Well I’m certified in business continuity but if my wife tips over or my kids tips over in a public place and somebody tips over in front of me, I don’t have any idea how to help them.” That seems incongruous to me. If I’m an expert in organizational resilience, what do I have to contribute to a business that’s confronted with running out of water or being put on water restrictions? That issue is a huge issue this minute as we speak in California.
It’s only going to become bigger. I guess I probably don’t have to tell anybody from Australia about drought.
Ken: Absolutely. It’s occupational hazard in much of the country here as well. You have a slogan “resilience is a competitive advantage” you’re selling that to executives but you’re selling it as the big picture of resilience. How are you differentiating it from the traditional business continuity risk models? Is it just on the proactive/reactive? It is on the holistic perspective or the strategic/tactical or all of those things?
Nat: I think fundamentally as I wrote in the piece that you quoted that there is no commercial advantage to being BCM certified as an organization. I think that’s why organizations have not adopted ISO 22301 with the same interest with which they attack ISO 9001 10, 15, 20 years ago. If my business is certified to ISO 9001, I’m going to be invited to bid on jobs and I’m going to win jobs to companies that are not certified to ISO 9001 will not get or will not win.
If I’m certified to a societal resilience standard which I think is the terminology for ISO 22301, I’m sorry, what do I get? As far as I can tell, all I get is a lot of expense and administrative hazard. Until you can show an executive that by doing things that make an organization better able to cope with uncertainty, I don’t think that the practice of BCM has a future. I’ve got on my webpage somewhere that in 10 years, business continuity managers will have gone the way of directory assistance operators for telephone companies.
They provide a service but nobody needs it and nobody wants it. Instead, what I focused in my own practice limited as it is and winding down as it is does the investment of time or money make commercial sense to a business that you’re not building a disaster recovery site. Now let me try to find a better example. When you are thinking about of strategy for organizational resilience, focusing on property, that is a facility, it doesn’t make sense for most companies to have a backup site that they never use. It is a sunk cost. It is a sunk cost like insurance. In fact, it’s not even as good as insurance because insurance at least will send you back money if you make a claim after a disaster. The recovery site is going to be nothing if you never lose it.
Instead, is there a way to organize the business that makes a recovery site less necessary, that makes it less likely that the business will chip over all at once? That provides an advantage over a business’s competitor. I think I’ve been able to find some for some of my client. Perhaps not enough. There are more and I find that an executive to whom you speak in those terms says, “Well he’s not just trying to get me to spend money to comply with a standard or a regulatory requirement. He’s trying to get me to think about how can I spend this money that we’ll both achieve organizational resilience and give us some advantage that we can monetize every day?”
Ken: Look, I agree. I’ve had exactly the same experience talking to senior executives where you can use their asset, their capability in more than one way. You’re right, that gives a value for money. How do we change this practice to address some of these other issues?
Is it skills? Your current work with trying to teach better persuasion skills. Is it practitioners having better grounding in business like being accountable for profit, being more entrepreneurial? What do we have to do to change this?
Nat: I think I said in the article that you quoted about what’s wrong with contingency planning. It’s both the range of skills and a range of consequences. If you will, to make it more memorable, it’s addressing a wider range of causes of disasters and a wider range of consequences it presents.
Yes, I think everybody in any profession should be thinking about expanding his or her skill set. I think the example when we talk about at the outset where I forced myself to go and learn something about emergency management when I felt that business continuity management was not enough. I think there are plenty of skills that people in resilience professions can learn. I encourage people, just a start, go to a conference in a related profession to which you’ve never been before.
At least meet some new people. Expand your mind and that addresses the skill side. The causes side, I think that thought leadership in organizational resilience means thinking about risks that may not yet be obvious, that may not come on quickly, that we may not have thought about yet but where I live you can’t open the newspaper any day of the week, not any day of the week without seeing something about the weather or water and every other day about food security.
I think that those are the kinds of consequential issues that people in our professions must start thinking. I’m going to devote the rest of my career to hammering, beating away on that drum and I hope I get somewhere.
Ken: Absolutely. I hope you do too. I’m glad you brought up the term thought leadership because it was actually trying to wrestle with that concept that motivated me to start this podcast in the first place. So many times you read what is allegedly thought leadership or what it’s supposed to be. Frankly, it becomes not much more than marketing in some perspectives.
You wrote a really good piece. Actually been one of the first things of yours I came across about thought leadership. It’s got some wonderful analogies. “Thought leadership is like bumblebee cross-fertilizing in an orchard” but more importantly it talks about … again, I’m just going to quote from that. “A thought leader articulates thoughts you haven’t yet had perceives conceptual relationships you do not see and has flashes of insight you wished you’d had. It challenges orthodoxy, sees a different future and describes it too and why does that make you believe? ”
Great prose! Absolutely aligns with the kind of risks and threats you were just speaking about. You obviously still see thought leadership in that way.
Nat: I see it exactly as I wrote it in the passage that you just quoted. That passage didn’t make me any friends over at the BCI to whom I referred to compared to Jeeves and Wooster in the old British comedy. I don’t think that thought leaders is arguing about whether business impact analysis comes before risk analysis or risk analysis comes before business impact analysis.
The Americans think that risk analysis comes first. The BCI, the Brits, think that impact analysis comes first. That’s not thought leadership. That’s how many angels are there on the head of a pin. A thought leadership asks the question, “Are we doing it right?” I’d be suspicious of anybody who says, “Yeah, we’re doing it right,” because I think we’re still addressing the same questions fundamentally about how to motivate people that we were addressing 20 years ago.
Ken: I’m hoping that out of all this we can come to the conclusion that thought leadership is actually leading us to think rather than telling people what they should be thinking.
Nat: When I learned about education when I went to university was how to examine a thought or a statement or a belief critically. Not antagonistically but critically. How to think about it for myself. Maybe that’s the meaning of liberal arts education. I’m sure that the university I went to would like to think so. That approach in my life I think certainly pretty well.
It has quite often not made me any friends. I don’t think that the people at DRI or BCI are great fans of mine. I’m happy they do the work they’re doing. I’m a member. I paid my dues but what they do by themselves isn’t going to make any organization in the world resilient. Following ISO 22301 isn’t going to make any organization resilient. What is going to make people resilient is awareness and action, and to get them to be aware and to take action, we’d have to persuade them and we have not.
We in my profession and I have not yet succeeded in doing that. That may be a fool’s errand.
Ken: Well maybe not. I think there’s a whole bunch of skills that we need to develop and the ability to persuade and influence people is one that we’ve overlooked. Let me take that as a segway to looking into the future.
The show is called beyond the Beyond the Black Stump which you’re probably aware of Australian colloquial expression about looking beyond the known universe, the unchartered waters.
I’m suspecting a lot of what we’ve spoken today. It’s going to put many of our colleagues outside of their comfort zones which is another aspect of it. In 2011, you wrote about the BC profession being a dead-end. Again I’ll quote, “Hope they’ll be happy doing the same thing.”
Nat: That’s years ago.
Ken: It was 2011 I think. That’s a few years back.
Nat: Seems like only yesterday.
Ken: The interesting would be let’s hope that it’s not actually accurate about the future but you said they’ll be happy. They’ll do the same thing in 2020 because I just can’t see many of them moving up the corporate old chart. There may be exceptions but I think that only proves the rule. Now you interviewed people for BC jobs and when you asked that old horny chestnut, where do you see yourself in five years? We don’t necessarily have an answer.
One of the things that I’ve been spending a bit of time on over the past 12 months is actually asking that question of people about how do they see business continuity in 2020 which is only five years away? Let me put you on the spot, how do you see? Can you describe a day in the life of a BC professional in 2020? Who do you think they’ll be talking to and what do you think they’ll be talking about?
Nat: I like to think that whatever I’ll be doing in 2020 will at least in some part being in Asia, and being about Asia which I have loved and still love. I felt at home there and I want to continue to be there as often as I can. I like to think that my life in 2020 will be a bit like my life today. I spend a lot of time reading, a lot of time reading. I spend a lot of time talking to a small number of people in this profession who I know for sure are smarter than I am, who are thinking about the future, who are actively asking what are we doing.
I’m trying to correct it. If there’s one thing that I get more joy from them speaking, it’s writing. I intend to continue trying to teach and speak and write. If I’m able to just still do that in 2020 and have people like you call me up from the other side of the world and start quoting to me, I will think that I have had some small success.
Ken: I’m sure you had one more than one hit on most of those articles. They’re probably all the people reading them too. You’ve hit on a subject that’s quite a hobby horse of mine. Reading, it’s something that I regularly find at conferences and what my people saying to me are. We don’t have time for that. All we read is you have narrow industry publications. You teach persuasion as a skill to people. How to critical is reading and even being able to practice writing to being able to persuade?
Nat: I was an English major at university and one thing I learned is you can’t write unless you read because you can’t learn how to do it right unless you read people who do it wrongly and people who do it beautifully. I have way more things to read on my Kindle than I’m ever have going a change to read. It’s the electronic equivalent of the bed side stand. As I look over the list of books that are there to read, they cover a wide range of subjects.
They’re generally by authors whose work I do not know. They’re on subjects, I confess there’s a lot about water and there’s a lot about food and some about climate. I don’t know how you can possibly advance in any career unless you’re trying to learn something new and there’s a limited number of ways to do that but the cheapest one is read.
Ken: You’re probably preaching to the choir. I think we’re kindred spirits. I also have a Kindle that’s loaded with stuff that I have yet to get around to reading. I’m probably like you. I read a lot as well.
Nat: It’s more long plane trips between Asia and North America. Eighteen hours each way gives me plenty of time to read without a phone with you.
Ken: Absolutely. I’ve got a couple of those coming up over the coming months. It’s been great speaking with you. I’m not sure where our paths are going across next. I really hope people take away this idea of the need to read more. I’m thinking that might actually be key, to read more, read wider, to actually change that narrow focus of the risks that we’re trying to address.
Nat: I’ll confess one secret. For the last five years, I did not own a television set. When people ask me, “How do you find time to do on reading?” I say just, “I don’t do any watching of television or movies.” I probably missed some important cultural events but it’s certainly been quieter not having the TV.
Ken: That’s an interesting perspective, probably a whole different conversation for another day. I spoke to Luke Bird just recently, who I think you’ve had some correspondence with. Interesting young man talking about how people are coming into this industry now direct from college and choosing it as a career, not falling in accidentally. Sometimes that generation probably couldn’t possibly conceive of how you live without television and social media but it does give me faith that we can change things when people are actively choosing this work and wanting to come here.
Nat: Yeah. Look Ken, I’m delighted that you’re doing these podcasts and I’m flattered to be asked and happy that technology makes it possible for us to do this. I look forward to getting a link or something that I would get to listen to whatever I said.
Ken: Oh you certainly will. Nat, again thanks for your time and hope our paths cross sometime soon in the future.
Nat: As I do as well. You have a good day.
Ken: You too.
Nat: Thanks, man.