By James Campanini, Managing Director, Cisco WebEx, EMEA

The past twelve months has undoubtedly been a year of disruption. With UK businesses already struggling through the worst recession in a generation, a series of natural phenomena have further challenged the resources of many already stretched enterprises. We have seen snow bring our travel networks to a standstill; floods decimate our roads and bridges; strikes by airlines and clouds of ash close European airspace for days. The unpredictable nature of such disruption at a precarious time for business prompts a need for a culture change in the UK from ‘travel chaos disrupts Britain’ towards ‘business as usual’.

In April, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and subsequent closure of European airspace cost the UK economy an estimated £100m+[1] and the threat of a repeat remains a possibility. Our research showed that half (50%) of UK organisations were negatively affected by the disruption caused by the ash cloud and almost a quarter reported that they had absent staff because of flight cancellations. Worryingly, four per cent of the organisations surveyed revealed they had missed out on a major business deal due to such unpredictable events. The effect this could have on their financial prospects for the year ahead could be dramatic[2]. Businesses cannot afford to face this disruption and neither should they have to because there are simple steps that can be taken to minimise the impact. A large part of this is advanced planning and ensuring they have a carefully structured continuity plan in place to cope more effectively with unexpected challenges to their business.

Despite the benefits that online collaboration tools can bring, particularly in times of disruption, three-fifths of UK organisations did not take any measures to minimise the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano. This is quite a staggering figure, especially with experts warning that the disruption is likely to reoccur over the next year or so. The simple steps business could take to minimise these risks need not cause anxiety for their CIOs — online collaboration tools can offer crucial additional support when business is disrupted. Take Cisco for example, we saw a 24% surge in the use of Cisco WebEx collaboration technology during the week that aircraft were grounded[3].

So what can businesses do? The crucial thing is to start planning now. Flexible working should become part of the prevailing business culture. Email and instant messaging was just the beginning of a more communicative society. The ever-increasing ubiquity and portability of the internet has fundamentally changed our means of working, whether it be social networking, cloud computing or mobile access to web conferencing tools, such as the Cisco WebEx Meeting Center app on the BlackBerry and iPhone. These applications can be used on the move before transferring seamlessly to office computers when you arrive at your destination. Businesses can also set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for staff, so they can access company servers from home or simply give them appropriate mobile technology, such as smartphones, to help them keep communicating with colleagues or customers remotely.

The important message for businesses is that is that collaboration technology, such as web and video conferencing, is not intended as a tool to replace face-to-face meetings but rather to augment existing arrangements and reduce travel costs that may be unnecessary. Businesses just cannot afford to let travel disruption effect their prospects. Industry can avoid coming to a standstill if it embraces modern, efficient practices to cope with otherwise unavoidable disruption.

Imagine a fully-implemented business culture where all employees are confident and able to use the latest technology to work efficiently no matter what situation they find themselves in. The risk to business continuity could be vastly reduced, as organisations continue to function as normal by taking advantage of flexible collaboration technology. Online meetings enable staff in any location to achieve productive, high-quality work over the internet, using webcams to see each other and allowing any document to be shared and edited in real-time. Ensuring all staff are equipped with tools and services that can facilitate this would provide a significant advantage over companies who fail to do so during times of disruption.

In today’s world, organisations shouldn’t have to suffer from effects of adverse environmental conditions or other disruptions such as strikes. Technology has advanced to the stage where most workers have their own email, social networking web pages or blogs. By taking this just one step further and providing access to fully collaborative online tools, you can avoid disruption, save money and remain ahead of the competition.

[1] International Air Transport Association
[1] YouGov, April 2010
[1] Cisco, May 2010