Thursday, 3 July 2014

Anyone for a cup of tea?
I work in the field of Business Continuity and Information Security.  ‘What does that mean?,’ I hear you ask. Well, it means planning for the 'what ifs' in this world – being prepared, cautious and knowing what to do when things go wrong.  However, whilst as professionals we should look to ‘practice what we preach’, we are all still humans and inevitably make mistakes.  Nevertheless, as with a well-implemented Business Continuity Management System, we can sometimes learn from our experiences – identify what went well, not so well, and take corrective action.  Most importantly, we can share our experiences with others and raise awareness, which is why I’m writing this article.

During a recent visit to Shanghai, China, I was fortunate enough to take a day as personal leave to visit and enjoy the local surroundings – who wouldn’t when you’ve travelled for 13 hours?

So, there I was, walking towards the Bund (Shanghai’s tourist centre), when I’m approached by some friendly locals asking me to take their picture – I’m in no rush, and it would be rude not to so, I obligingly take the photo and enter into polite conversation.  I’m told that the group are on holiday and love my English accent, and we end up chatting about life in general.  They then tell me they are just about to set off to enjoy a local tradition and ask if I would like to join them.  I politely refuse, and say that I had already made plans to visit the Huangpu River.  They continue to try and persuade me, saying that, ‘It’s on my way,’ and that the event is, ‘Exciting and I can’t miss out.’  I pause to think and, come to the conclusion that it can’t hurt – can it?

We walk together, chatting and enjoying each other’s company.  We approach a small building and the group walk inside.  Yes, I can already hear you say, ‘Turn around, don’t go in, change your mind.’  Admittedly, those thoughts did enter my mind too but, being English, I naively thought that it would be rude not to follow.

So, we walk into a small room where I’m greeted by a elderly Chinese lady who introduces me to the history of tea and the art of traditional tea-tasting – not really my ‘cup of tea’, but I’ll try anything once!

We’re told about the Chinese tradition of pouring water onto a ceramic tea-god frog; how to hold a teacup correctly, and how the tea has natural health preventions.  We then sample five different flavours, and the ‘event’ comes to an end.  The people I’m with then ask me how I would like to, ‘split the bill’.  Innocently, I think there are five of us in total, so we’ll just split it five-ways!  I’m told that two of the group are students, and it’s ‘Chinese tradition that working people should pay for students’.  Again, not wanting to offend, I reluctantly agree.  It’s only then I’m shown the bill – 1500 Yuan (about £150!).  My mental conversion calculator has never been great, but I’m already thinking that sounds expensive and I’ve only got 300 Yuan on me.  I’m told there’s a cash machine downstairs, and I’m escorted by one of my ‘new friends’ to show me the way.  I pay my share of the bill, the others hand over their cash, and I’m even given a present from one of the students to thank me for paying – we then part and go our separate ways.

To be honest, the experience itself was quite enjoyable, and the tea was actually tasty.  But, as I continue to ponder about the event, I start to realise that I’ve most likely been scammed, and I start to kick myself, (not literally!).  Going off with strangers, in a place I didn’t know, anything could have happened – what had I been thinking?

When I get back to the hotel, I Google, ‘tea-tasting in Shanghai’, and disappointingly see page-after-page of warnings about tea-tasting scams – there’s even an article from an experienced travel journalist who succumbed to the same misfortunes.  So, what is the scam?  Well, I’m sure you’ve understood the core elements from my own experience, and I read that the money the others handed over was probably given to them by the teahouse in advance, to make everything seem fair and above board.  Why didn’t I just refuse to pay?  I felt obligated.  I had verbally agreed, and I had inadvertently trusted the people I was with.

So, how does this relate back to Business Continuity?

Preparation is key!  Scope out your requirements and understand the organisation before commencing work. Understand the risks and threats both on a global and local scale.  Review options available to reduce the impact, including insurance.

Conduct an impact/risk assessment; talk to those with the knowledge and expertise; obtain the facts; look at supporting evidence and produce your plans.

If something goes wrong, don't point the finger of blame, but take a step back and conduct a Post Incident Review. Identify what went well, not so well, and plan corrective actions for improvement.  Communicate; get everyone to understand; raise awareness and spread the word.

Maintain, review, test and exercise.  Plans need to be current and correct; things change.  New risks and threats will appear that may mean your strategy needs to be updated.  Exercise and validate the theory, which will help improve understanding, the expectations; identify gaps and areas of continuous improvement.

If only I had ‘practiced what I preach’, and found out about China before my visit; understood about risks; spoken with others; raised my own awareness; then I may never have been scammed, or put at risk.  It's easy to say, ‘That will never happen to me,’ but things do go wrong, and being prepared can save you when you really need it.

I've learned a valuable lesson in China, and the same could happen for you however, I will be better prepared and risk savvy in the future, and most importantly, next time, I will stick to a vodka and coke!

Claire Phipps, MBCI

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