EDITORIAL: Offline thinking
Patrick FlanneryFeatures Business Intelligence editorial equipment rental opinion
An internet outage prompts reflection on our readiness for trouble.
I’m writing this in the middle of the Great Rogers Outage of July 8. No Wi-Fi, no cell service and basic cable TV only. It’s unclear to me how such a broad failure across different systems can occur, but then again I’m no telecommunications engineer. I hope this isn’t some kind of Russian cyberattack. I suppose the causes will be made clear in time.
People are out talking to each other on my street. Feels a bit like the early days of COVID. The Tim Hortons Wi-Fi connects but you can’t do anything online, probably because their system is overwhelmed. I can do some things (like write this) offline but, were this situation to persist, I’d be unable to really do my job at all without some major adjustments to how and where I work.
As if it wasn’t clear before, our economy is now almost as dependant on internet access as it is on any other basic service like electricity, roads and fuel delivery. Data is the most valuable commodity in the world if you think about the market price less the cost of acquisition. We fight wars, write laws and contort public policy in order to protect oil supply. Maybe it’s time we take steps to guarantee reliable internet access to everyone and at least provide some kind of backstop when private companies fail? Providing broadband to remote areas would seem to be an important step in this direction.
More broadly, both this experience and the COVID-related supply chain shortages we are all facing have underlined a principle of business that I think has been neglected for at least the last 25 years: contingency planning. Corporations used to be very concerned with insulating themselves against any threats to their ability to deliver their products. Legal, financial, infrastructure, supply chain, personnel, governance, succession – companies would spend significant organizational capital ensuring some level of redundancy or alternatives in all these systems to minimize their exposure to risk. The great waste-cutting initiatives of the late ‘80s and ‘90s (think just-in-time manufacturing) eroded these efforts. Then, when they seemed to be broadly successful, reduced them to an afterthought in many companies.
Like my work-from-home situation, just-in-time is great when everything is working properly. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past three years, things don’t always work properly. Like insurance, contingency planning is something that costs you a little but seems to to deliver no benefit most of the time. Until it spares you huge costs when the black swan lands on your doorstep.
There’s even an example of just-in-time gone wrong in this issue. Dave Runnels at Camrose explains that he ran into difficulties when he sold an aging skid steer without buying another first on the assumption that a replacement would always be readily available. The post-pandemic manufacturing world had other ideas.
Side note: As I left to go try the Wi-Fi at Tim Hortons this morning, I left my sleeping teenage daughter a note telling her where I was going and why. I ended with, “Books still work. Read something LOL.” One thing that won’t become unavailable in an internet outage – or even a power outage – is your print issue of this magazine. Call it your contingency for critical industry information in the event of a total war on our information space. LOL…kind of.
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