Business Continuity vs Disaster Recovery: Know the Difference

A business continuity plan outlines how core business functions will continue to operate during and following a major disruption or disaster. A disaster recovery plan involves all of the measures a business will take in responding to a catastrophic event, and aims to fully restore normal business processes as quickly as possible.

Both business continuity and disaster recovery plans help companies minimize the effects of catastrophic events of business. They also provide some peace of mind. Employers and employees are more comfortable knowing that their organization has a set of clear policies established to respond to huge disruptions.

The big difference is when each plan comes into effect. A business continuity plan is all about quickly keeping the business going as smoothly as possible. A disaster recovery plan, on the other hand, focuses more on getting the business all the way back to normal after the disaster has subsided.

Business continuity

According to the International Standards Organization, the concept of business continuity arose in the 1980s and early 1990s as information technology-led responses to the effects of events like cyberattacks on societies. Governments and regulators began to recognize the need to alleviate the effects of such disasters, and businesses likewise recognized their interdependence with government and society at large.

Business continuity plans often begin with what is known as business impact analysis. This type of analysis is performed to determine the plan’s overall scope. It also identifies legal, contractual, and regulatory requirements, and lays out the basis for planning and justifying the cost associated with an organization’s business continuity program. Such an analysis is often conducted simultaneously with a risk assessment.

Business continuity focuses on temporarily addressing a disruption until a plausible fix is developed for the situation. Often, business continuity plans involve protecting business applications, network and telecommunications services, online systems, and server access. Business continuity plans should enable an organization to get core systems back up and functioning quickly, so as to mitigate damage to overall productivity.

Further, business continuity plans should include alternatives to maintain normal levels of customer service in case of major disruptions. Such alternatives can include everything from emergency office locations to offsite complete data backup drives, to emergency administrative rights.

Disaster recovery

Disaster recovery is all about getting a business back to normal operations after a disaster has occurred. Without a disaster recovery plan, a business can run aground when faced with hardship. Among companies that face an IT disaster, for instance, 93% will file for bankruptcy within one year.

Disaster recovery plans should always include business-critical asset identification. This means that a team of specialists should be documenting which systems, applications, data, and other resources are most critical for business continuity, and should develop a plan for the necessary steps needed to recover data.

Another part of disaster recovery planning involves testing and optimization. A team of specialists should continually test and update the disaster recovery plan to effectively address dynamic threats and business needs. This will help ensure that the organization is always prepared to face worst-case scenarios and catastrophe events, and that it will successfully navigate such disruptions. For example, when planning for how to respond to a cyberattack, organizations must continually test and update security and data protection strategies and establish protective measures that allow them to detect possible data breaches.

Disaster recovery strategies may involve developing further employee safety measures, such as conducting fire drills, creating natural disaster evacuation plans, and purchasing special disaster supplies.

Similarities between business continuity and disaster recovery

There’s plenty of common ground between business continuity and disaster recovery planning. Both are proactive strategies that seek to prepare an organization for sudden, unexpected catastrophic events. Instead of being reactive in the face of catastrophe, both strategies take preemptive approaches, attempting to minimize the effects of potential disaster scenarios before they ever occur.

Organizations use both of these strategies to prepare for a wide range of natural and human-made disasters. Both business continuity and disaster recovery are useful when preparing for natural disasters, wildfires, pandemics, and cyberattacks.

Both strategies require regular review and update and should be tested periodically to ensure they match organizational goals as they evolve.

The key difference between business continuity and disaster recovery

The key difference between the two is when the plan comes into effect. Business continuity focuses on keeping core operations functioning during and immediately after a catastrophic event. On the other hand, disaster recovery focuses on how an organization responds after the catastrophic event has subsided and how the organization will return to normal.

While both concepts are concerned with post-catastrophic-event timelines, disaster recovery is more specifically about restoring an organization back to its level of operation pre-disaster. There is overlap between these concepts, but they do remain distinct in their operations.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of an organization’s business continuity might be allowing employees to work remotely. However, this solution is only part of the response to the emergency, and may not be sustainable for the specific organization in the long term. Part of the organization’s disaster recovery plan, then, would focus on how to safely return employees back to a single location.

Another way of thinking about this is that business continuity plans aim to limit operational downtime, while disaster recovery plans focus on limiting abnormal or inefficient functions of the organization.

Business continuity or disaster recovery?

It should be clear by this point that it is generally advisable for organizations to be engaged in both business continuity and disaster recovery planning. Although the two are not the same thing, they work together in many scenarios.

If an organization has a business continuity plan in place but has not developed the disaster recovery element of that plan, the organization will have to scramble to try and fix the technology and other systems relevant to its crucial business operations. The lack of a disaster plan, or a crucial element in a disaster recovery plan, will mean increased downtime for an organization in the event of a catastrophic disruption. The organization will have to essentially develop a disaster recovery plan on the fly, which will result in increased downtime while developing a fix.

This exact scenario played out in many organizations recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these businesses had disaster recovery plans but did not account for the effects of a global pandemic. Businesses were left scrambling to “cauterize” their wounds. Unfortunately, many businesses were not prepared for such an economic climate and had to permanently or temporarily close their doors.

On the other hand, the lack of a broader business continuity plan will significantly impede productivity and communication, which will severely impact your organizational management. In turn, this will severely hinder your ability to ensure maintenance of service, consistency, and recovery from disaster.

Balancing business continuity and disaster recovery planning is a matter of an organization’s priorities, and each scenario is unique. If most of your organization’s business takes place online, for instance, you will probably need to ensure that data protection is your number one concern. Losing all or some of your data could result in catastrophic failure, as you would not be able to pay vendors, bill customers, or access inventory.

In such a scenario, you want to know beforehand how long your organization can wait to resume operations before serious losses begin to be incurred. You also need to weigh the costs of such a delay against the costs associated with the actual planning and execution of a disaster recovery plan.

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Regina Minton

Regina Minton is a professional writer and researcher with five years of experience writing on topics such as technology, real estate, and finance.