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Cole PontoJanuary 31, 20237 min read

Mastering Business Continuity Plan Testing: 4 Essential Steps

How to Test Your Business Continuity Plan in 4 Easy Steps | SBS
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Business continuity planning is crucial to safeguarding your organization's operational integrity. Unpredictable disruptions can significantly impact your organization's critical business processes, whether due to natural disasters, technological failures, or other unforeseen circumstances. Being proactive and well-prepared is not just an option; it's a necessity.

If a disruption occurs, it's essential that your organization has a plan to swiftly address and manage any potential issues, ensuring minimal impact on your ability to serve customers.

However, merely having a business continuity plan (BCP) is not enough. The true test of a BCP's effectiveness lies in its execution. Testing your business continuity plan is essential to validate its efficacy and enhance your team's response capabilities across various potential scenarios, from natural disasters to IT outages. The good news is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to testing your BCP. This guide outlines four strategic steps to help you develop a more effective business continuity plan testing program, ensuring your organization is resilient and ready for any challenge.

BCP Testing 4 Steps

 

Step 1: Incorporate Different Testing Methods

The first step to enhancing your BCP testing is to incorporate a variety of testing methods. Each method offers unique insights into the usability and effectiveness of your BCP. The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) suggests several testing methods:

  • Tabletop Exercise: Often considered a strategic discussion, this exercise involves key personnel reviewing and discussing their roles as defined in the BCP during a simulated adverse event. The objective is to validate the feasibility of plans and procedures, ensure personnel are clear on their responsibilities, and confirm interdepartmental coordination.
  • Limited-Scale Exercise: A limited-scale exercise is a simulation involving applicable resources (personnel and systems) to recover targeted business processes. It tests whether critical systems can be restored as planned and if employees are proficient with their emergency responsibilities.
  • Full-Scale Exercise: The most comprehensive form of testing, a full-scale exercise simulates the full use of available resources (personnel and systems), prompting a full recovery of business processes. This exercise aims to confirm the total recoverability of critical systems at an alternate processing site and test the full implementation of the BCP in action. For example, a full-recovery exercise might simulate the complete loss of primary facilities.

 

Step 2: Understand How Often to Test

Step two is to understand how often to test. Understanding the optimal frequency for testing your business continuity plan is crucial, though there are no universal standards. The frequency often depends on various factors specific to your organization, such as industry, size, resources, and the maturity of your BCP.

SBS advises that your organization's emergency preparedness plans - including business continuity, disaster recovery, incident response, and pandemic preparedness - be reviewed annually. Testing typically includes an annual tabletop test of all four individual EPP plans, testing multiple scenarios for threats you identify as a higher risk to your organization. Be sure to test the scenarios you believe to be the highest risk to your organization most frequently. You can use your business continuity risk assessment to help identify which threats are particularly impactful/probable to the organization.


Additionally, conducting a limited-scale exercise at least once a year is recommended. However, more frequent tests may be necessary depending on your organization's complexity and the developmental stage of your failover procedures. For example, if your organization's goal is to have a fully functional failover DR backup site, but you have not yet achieved full failover mirroring and backups, implementing this complex backup process and testing to ensure everything works correctly from failover to failback may take years to achieve. In comparison, any organization can quickly and frequently test file-level restores from nightly backups.


However, if your organization has significant changes in processes, systems, or plan details, you may want to perform these tests more frequently. To reiterate, these timelines are highly dependent on your organization; performing some of these tests at a particular frequency may not be feasible or logical. Base this decision on your organization and its specific needs.


If you are looking for somewhere to start and what should be prioritized for testing, refer to your business impact analysis. This is an excellent way to identify your most critical processes and the assets/systems you rely on the most. Systems you require to keep your most critical processes functioning should be tested more frequently, allowing you to validate proper recoverability and the timeframes of that recovery. Most organizations benefit greatly from having a testing schedule that documents their plans. This allows for a strategic approach to testing involving the organization's processes, systems, and vendors deemed necessary.

 

Step 3: Include Your Vendors

Incorporating your vendors in the BCP testing process is a crucial step towards enhancing the effectiveness of your business continuity planning. In your testing cycle – whether a tabletop test, limited-scale exercise, or full-scale exercise – you'll want to ensure your critical vendor partners are included in the testing process to whatever extent possible. Involving your vendors helps validate your plan against more realistic, complex scenarios. It allows vendors to offer feedback that could be invaluable in refining your business continuity strategies. This collaboration helps ensure that both your organization and its vendors are well-prepared to act swiftly and effectively in an actual disruption.

 

Step 4: Document Your Testing

Documenting the outcomes of your BCP tests is essential. Be meticulous in recording the results of all exercises along with any actionable insights that emerge. This documentation is crucial as it forms the basis for refining and strengthening your business continuity plan. Following up on these items and incorporating recommendations resulting from tests is the most important process in the BCP testing lifecycle. Testing, documenting your testing results, and implementing processes to improve your BCP are the best ways to strengthen your organization's response processes.

Repeated testing, documenting outcomes, and refining the plan based on these results are the pillars of a robust business continuity strategy. This iterative process enhances your immediate response capabilities and contributes to a culture of continuous improvement within your organization.

 

 

Gears

 

Common Challenges and Solutions in Business Continuity Testing

It can be difficult to build a perfect process. Flaws will almost always be noticed. The question is, were they identified during testing or in a live event? Small things can often turn into major issues. For example, perhaps an organization identifies a data line or internet connection as a top priority, so much so that the organization implements a backup provider that will automatically be failed over to in the event of any issues with the primary connection. While this is a great control, it can lead to problems without testing. Once such a control is established, it does little good if it fails upon its first intended use. 

While using your business impact analysis to assist in identifying what to test is a good primary solution, other ways should be considered. When implementing new technology, consider whether testing needs to be done and if it should be added to the testing schedule. Tabletop testing can also be a great way to identify gaps in testing. For example, during the exercise, if the group relies on a backup connection to restore a process or a backup vendor to allow the organization to function during a disruption, the group should confirm that such critical redundancies are tested to ensure they could be relied upon during an actual disruption event. Even non-technical attendees can pose questions to IT. Have we tested that? Should we be testing this? When was the last time we tested that? 

Another issue that may be encountered is whether our recovery efforts meet testing expectations. For example, if we have an RTO of a particular time, the organization should validate that those timeframes are supported through successful testing. Documenting this in reports is highly recommended. Once again, posing questions during strategy or testing sessions can help identify potential inconsistencies between expectations and current recovery capabilities. Let's go through some questions that may be asked. When was the last time we did a full recovery of that system/process? How long did it take? Does that meet our documented RTO?

Testing is not something that can be perfected and simply left alone. In today's environment, technology is constantly changing, and new issues can arise each time a test is performed. Ensuring that a testing strategy evolves with an organization's technology is essential in ensuring the organization's ability to withstand disasters, incidents, or outages. Taking a reactive approach to disaster recovery and business continuity means that you may be dealing with the issues that could have been addressed during testing in a dire business continuity event. 

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Cole Ponto

Cole Ponto is a Senior Information Security Consultant at SBS CyberSecurity. He is also an instructor for the SBS Institute, leading the Certified Banking Business Continuity Professional (CBBCP) course.

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