Working together to plan for the unexpected

The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented challenge that tested Oxford’s staff students to the limit, and put a sharp focus on the way that the University responds to unexpected events.

But smaller unforeseen issues arise all-too regularly – from local leaks and power cuts to security alerts and supply issues.

We also experience occasional larger-scale incidents, such as the Tinbergen building closure of 2017, which need a more coordinated University-wide response.

As we start Business Continuity Awareness Week (15-19 May), colleagues are being encouraged to consider how they approach their response to these sorts of situations.

Planning for emergencies

The University has long held plans to respond to challenging events – with a keen focus on ensuring Oxford’s world-class teaching and research can continue regardless of what comes the University’s way.

Teams in departments and colleges maintain business continuity plans (BCPs) and a University-wide emergency response framework is available in the case of wider threats.

A 2022 review of the University’s COVID-19 response led by Baroness Valerie Amos and Professor Tim Powers recognised quality work in this area, and made series of recommendations to build on existing progress.

Working collaboratively

One of the key lessons from the pandemic was that the University performed most effectively when it worked collaboratively.

That is why work is taking place to bring different parts of the University together to respond to different threats.

A prime example of this is the Business Continuity Network - one of the Professional Services Together Communities of Practice.

Formed during the pandemic, the network has more than 100 members from the University and colleges. It meets monthly to consider upcoming challenges, and shares good practice and lessons learned between its members.

Network member Harmohinder Bahl, Home Bursar at Worcester, said: ‘I’m grateful that colleges and Halls are included in the network as it considers our differences and yet reaches a collective response in dealing with duplicate issues. I am more confident knowing I can reach out to other members in my time of need having participated in the monthly network meetings.’

Neil Unsworth, joined Oxford during Michaelmas term as Head of Risk and Resilience to lead on business continuity and prepare for major incidents. He added; ‘It is great to see colleagues from departments, divisions, colleges and the central University working together to tackle business continuity issues, and the rapid growth of the network is really encouraging. Sharing all our collective resources and skills is the key to getting through any future disruption successfully.’

Putting it to the test

One of the first tests for Neil as he came into his role was soaring energy prices in late 2022 coupled with, for the first time in decades, the potential for government-imposed blackouts.

A working group within the Business Continuity Network was quickly formed to respond to energy costs and threats of major power outages, meeting regularly to discuss immediate mitigations and plans for the future.

Alongside these live examples, regular practice exercises are also now taking place.

For example, in February the MPLS Division ran a simulation of a significant event in one of its departments, while a University-wide live exercise took place in April, focused on an imagined ransomware attack.

Keri Dexter, Head of Strategic Planning and Projects, MPLS, who attended the February event, said: ‘I had not been involved in an exercise like this before – but found it a very useful way to highlight the key issues which, collectively, we need to iron out, so we're better prepared and able to act quickly when emergency situations do occur.’

Neil added: ‘While plans are important, exercises are vital for helping us to familiarise ourselves with our procedures, exposing gaps in our plans, and making improvements for when incidents happen for real.’

Recognising Oxford’s Success

As a mark of the University’s progress in this area, Oxford recently won a national award for its response to this winter’s energy supply issues.

The prize, in the ‘Innovation Breakthrough’ category of the Higher Education Business Continuity Network annual awards, recognised the joined-up approach to energy issues across a complex organisation as sector leading – and adds to a 2022 commendation for the University’s pandemic response.

Assurance Director Łukasz Bohdan, who is responsible for business continuity direction, guidance and support across the University, said: ‘This prize highlights Oxford’s growing strength in responding to emergencies, and I have seen a real commitment to business continuity post-pandemic at Oxford,

I would encourage colleagues across the University to use Business Continuity Awareness Week as an opportunity to focus on building our resilience, to safeguard the future of our academic and research activities.’

Colleagues can find out more about the University’s business continuity approach on the Assurance Directorate website, and contact Neil Unsworth with any questions.

A series of workshops and resources are also available on the Business Continuity Week website (external link).