Although the majority of global corporations now have or are developing detailed plans to deal with an potential bird flu pandemic, a new report has raised big questions about their effectiveness if the worst happens.
According to research carried out by The Conference Board, almost three-quarters of the 533 global companies of all sizes they surveyed either have a plan or are well into developing one, with more than eight out of 10 beginning these planning efforts within the last 12 months.
But that still leaves a quarter of companies with no pandemic plan in place, about half of whom do not see such planning as a current business priority. A further one in five insist that their existing business continuity plan is adequate to manage the threat.
What more, almost a third of those surveyed say they do not know whether their company's board of directors has had any discussion about their plans and only one in 10 said that their board has adopted a formal policy for pandemic planning.
"As concern about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic becomes increasingly widespread across the globe, a large number of companies are taking steps toward adopting a risk mitigation strategy," said Amy Kao, co-author of the report.
"But the effectiveness of business plans and the quality of relationships necessary for their successful implementation in times of extreme public, private and social stress remains open to question."
Large and publicly held companies appear to be the most advanced in their preparations for a possible avian flu pandemic, with small firms most likely to be lagging behind.
More than nine out of 10 companies with more than $5 billion in sales either have an up-to-date preparedness plan or are in the process of creating one.
In contrast, two-thirds of companies with less than $100 million do not yet have any specific plans in place to deal with the impact of a bird flu pandemic.
"The variability of business responsiveness to planning alone - with large companies more willing and able to do so than smaller companies - underscores vulnerability in the current state of pandemic readiness planning," said co-author David J. Vidal. "Given that successful pandemic containment would require extraordinary levels of business, social, governmental and individual awareness, knowledge, and cooperation, these gaps provide reason for pause."
According to the report, the most significant disadvantage in not conducting formal pandemic preparedness planning may be the almost total absence of coordination with the public sector.
An overwhelming proportion of companies – more than nine out of 10 – said that they have not had any discussions with any level of government about their organisation's ability to provide essential services or access to facilities, equipment, or staff during a pandemic.
In addition, the major gap in readiness emerged between companies in critical industries (those designated as vital to national economic continuity in a crisis) and non-critical industries.
Unsurprisingly, companies in the healthcare, energy/utilities, chemical manufacturing, and computer/technology manufacturing industries ranked at the top for either having a plan in place or being in the process of planning.
Health care and computer/technology manufacturing industries are also farther along in their planning efforts, with one in three having a complete plan ready in the event of a pandemic.
At an organisational level, the big concerns for managers in the event of a pandemic are the health and welfare of employees, operational continuity and their telecommuting capabilities to enable employees to work from home.
But despite these concerns, only one in 10 organisations have acquired supplies of antiretroviral drugs such as Tamiflu and three-quarters said they have no plans to do so.
Instead, almost all companies cite employee education as a critical part of their pandemic response efforts and include regular communication about the impact of influenza viruses on health and work performance as a preventative measure in their plans.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of high levels of absenteeism, more than two-thirds of companies plan to continue to depend upon their existing workforce to maintain normal business operations by cross-training employees to be skilled in multiple jobs.
A third also plan to gather additional human resources by pooling with other organisations and a quarter intend contracting retired workers to come back to work temporarily to ensure that critical positions are filled.
And mindful of the importance of remote working, seven out of 10 firms are beefing up their IT capabilities to allow employees to work from home or from a satellite facility during a pandemic.
"While telecommuting may alleviate some business disruption, the downstream effects stemming from supply chain disruption will likely remain significant," Amy Kao said.
"In fact, about half of survey participants predict that impact from delivery and supply chain disruptions will be very serious or extremely serious."