Fact or Fiction

Andrew MacLeod considers whether it is better to use real or fictitious characters and companies when conducting continuity exercises.

If you were asked, in the context of a business continuity or crisis management exercise, to think of a large imaginary commercial British airline, which would you base it upon and what structures and capabilities would it have? It would be beneficial to the exercise if all participants were thinking about the same airline. Rather than basing their thought assumptions on EasyJet (highest total number of scheduled passengers carried in 2011) whilst others envisaged British Airways (the largest carrier), a common intelligence picture would increase all participants’ situational awareness.

Face and predictive validity

In the course of delivering scenario-based exercises to a wide variety of clients, we have noticed a trend between those clients who wish to use real company names and events, and those who prefer fictitious characters. This has prompted us to debate in some detail which is the best approach and, most importantly, which enhances exercises with added face and predictive validity.

Naturally, where and to whom the exercise is being delivered will have a strong bearing on whether real characters, companies and events are appropriate. If the exercise is being delivered to a public forum with participants from a number of organisations, then using fictitious characters is nearly always advantageous for several reasons. The first is that someone from the ‘large bank’ you are claiming will commit to a course of action may be sitting in the audience, and could rightly de-rail the exercise by claiming they would in fact do something else. Those from other organisations, or your existing clients, might also be concerned that you may in future use them in an exercise and so avoid using a consultancy that they believe ignores confidentiality.

However, when delivering an exercise ‘in-house’ (with all the relevant confidentiality agreements signed), the use of real organisations and characters as protagonists is arguably more suitable and enhances an exercise for the participants. In our view, for an exercise to be successful it requires three important elements: face validity; predictive validity; and fun.

Face validity can be described as achieving “a model that appears reasonable on its face to model users and others who are knowledgeable about the real system being simulated. [1]” Predictive validity is a term taken from psychometrics and in that context is the extent to which a score on a scale or test predicts scores on some criterion measure. In a crisis management or business continuity exercise setting, it is the prediction of that which reasonably could occur. If the face and predictive validity are correct, the fun element is a lot simpler to integrate.

Security implications

One often cited reason to avoid the use of real characters is the security implications. Throughout the 1980s the British Army used the concept of GENFORCE in all of its exercises as the fictional army against which training was conducted. No-one was under any illusions that this was based on the Warsaw Pact forces. So why was the enemy during exercises not just called the Russians? Was the British Army’s training at that time shrouded in that much secrecy that it would have shocked the Russians to find out we were training for scenarios against them?

Clearly for certain organisations there will be real life material and situations which are not suitable for inclusion in an exercise. For example, should an organisation be attempting a hostile takeover of another, it would be prudent to avoid a business continuity exercise based on that situation prior to it happening. Generally, however, business continuity and crisis management exercises are reactive in the first instance (the requirement for proactive decision-making comes after whatever the initial incident is) so the use of real organisations does not compromise any security issues. For the majority of commercial organisations, should the necessary and appropriate exercise confidentiality measures be taken, then the security value of avoiding real names and organisations is negligible.

A question of maturity

It is important to note that not all clients have the same depth of experience of delivering exercises, and we have found that we are asked advice on best practise in terms of real or fictitious characters. Frequently, we have found that those with the least maturity in their exercising regime prefer avoiding the use of real characters. The main reasons for this are:

  • wishing to avoid upsetting a senior participant in the exercise
  • nervousness of the exercise not being received as it is intended
  • fear that participants may becoming fixated on a minor detail which they believe an organisation would have done differently.

By building this inner resistance to the use of real organisations and characters, it is reasonable to ask whether those organisations, through their intrinsic conservatism, are setting the conditions for the exercise to be sub-optimal.

We have also found that in the majority of exercises, participants seem more comfortable with real organisations and characters, as it allows them to innately understand the groupings being discussed and how they should respond to them, rather than having to rapidly try to decipher an organisation completely new to them. There are very few members (it is a stretch to say none, although we have never met any) of Gold or Silver teams who would be offended by the use of real characters in an exercise setting.

Suspending disbelief

All exercises will contain an element of ‘suspension of disbelief’, but limiting this so that the predictive and face validity are increased, will result in a more engaging exercise. This was noted as far back as 1817 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (when commenting on novels) that weaving “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a tale, would allow the reader to suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Should fictitious characters be used in an exercise, it requires the participants to suspend significantly more disbelief which can detract from their perception of an exercise. The concept of suspension of disbelief allows exercises using real organisations and characters to immediately gain credibility and plausibility.

The added realism that genuine organisations, characters, and events bring is the major selling point. It means that participants can explicitly understand how their organisation and stakeholders would be affected should they experience a disruption. This realism adds context to any exercise and whilst we in the business continuity world often like to repeat the mantra “the cause is not important, it’s the effect that counts”, to many of those in Gold and Silver teams, the ‘cause’ is equally important as it is the cause which engages them.

For example, if an exercise required the denial of access to a large distribution centre in Egham, Surrey, does it bring greater predictive and face validity if DHL is used in an exercise as opposed to a fictional firm which participants would then be required to guess at the size and scale of (it is unlikely during an exercise there would be time to brief an organisation in the required detail or that participants would have time to fully understand a new fictional organisation). The use of real organisations and characters immediately means that participants have a similar thought process on how they think that organisation will respond.

Creating a lasting memory

We would always, if asked, recommend the use of real characters to provide added realism to an exercise. In the short space of time (usually a day per year) that members of Gold and Silver teams participate in crisis management and business continuity exercises, we seek to avoid their lasting memory of an exercise being that it is unlikely to happen as none of the organisation’s stakeholders were involved. Rather, it has proved beneficial to make any exercise as lifelike as possible, so that members of senior management understand that disruptive events can affect them and are foremost in their mind.

With, if lucky, one annual exercise with which to promote the merits of crisis management and business continuity, it is important that exercising is got right. Therefore we would invite comment and debate on any compelling reason to avoid the use of real organisations, names and characters in an exercise.

1 Description of Face Validity from Banks, J. (2005). Discrete-Event System Simulation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Authored by Needhams 1834 Consultants. Published by The BCI in Continuity Magazine, Q4 2012, p16-17