The Yanks & The Brits: Some Conference Observations

A lot has been written about the differences and similarities between the Brits and the Americans, but whilst visiting San Diego for the 2013 Continuity Insights Management Conference, one or two more things struck me.

Jet lagged at dawn, I looked out of the 12th floor hotel window into the sea, and observed fog billowing under the massive San Diego Bay Bridge. Looming “by the dawn’s early light” (no pun intended) were four huge aircraft carriers (just four of the USA’s fourteen carrier groups; by contrast the British are saving up hard to buy two new ones). On Coronado Island I saw more damaged, broken and parked F-18s being used for spare parts than the whole British Royal Air Force has combat aircraft. I realized that the U.S. is continental in scale; by comparison, Britain would be just a small state in the Union (if we were still one country).

Despite fighting the same wars and mostly being on the same side (at least since we Brits burnt down the White House in 1814), we still have a lot that divides us, and in the context of business continuity, such differences can be important. The following is a personal and half satirical vignette of my observations during my five days in San Diego. Naturally, I have stereotyped hugely, but please note that there is no implied criticism, just observation, and there is perhaps some truth in what I say.

Observation 1

Americans like detail, systems and process.

The Americans seemed to prefer process and far greater levels of detail than the Brit BC managers I know of. This appeared to manifest itself in the apparent thoroughness of the risk assessment and business impact analyses (BIAs) that speakers and delegates spoke of.  Some of their BIA spread sheets could cover the USS Nimitz’s flight deck if they were all printed out. I can only hypothesise that Americans do detail (and masses of it) just because they can.

In contrast, the Brit is so used to doing without the essential tools and having low funding for so long, that anything more than the back of an envelope is a bit technically intimidating, and we all know deep down that the really important people only read the executive summary anyway.

Observation 2

The Yanks have a thing called the ‘C-suite’. (It is a phrase sadly slowly catching on here, too — as I have subsequently discovered.)

At first I thought this was the ‘command suite’ or ‘operations room’. Only by day two did I realize it was their executives — for whom and about whom little was said, other than that they can interfere with the operational response. In my opinion, this is because the Americans simply have too many of them. There are just too many ‘senior deputy executive junior vice president’ type titles in your organizations.

I listened to one poor speaker talking about a desktop exercise for 20 to 30 of their executives. Surely, I beseech you, you just cannot have this many people ‘in strategic charge’. The span of command would be too unwieldy and they would never reach a conclusion in a fast-paced crisis.

The head of Fiat cars in Italy was asked by a journalist what the ideal number was for a board of directors of a major multinational business. He replied that it should be an odd number, and that three was probably too many.

Observation 3

The Americans seem jolly serious. (Can you spot the oxymoron?)

Maybe the humour is different, but during the conference I never heard any funny stories about an incident or crisis. We Brits tend to feel that a nice cup of tea, and good joke can get you through most things.

I know of an international professional practice in London that was isolated inside their building during the 7/7 tube/metro/underground rail and bus bombings. Hours later, the police had not let them out of their building. Did they make calls to loved ones? No, the phones were out. Did they compose a will and author last letters to loved ones? No. Did they maintain email contact with their client base? A little bit, initially. Eventually their CEO ordered the client dining rooms to be opened and they had a fine wine tasting session whilst watching the news on TV.

Observation 4

The Americans are now actually very good at Business Continuity

This observation is not patronizing. I went to a BC conference in the U.S. about six years ago, and I found it almost pedestrian compared to the level of knowledge then in the UK.

Americans have now caught up to us, and in some cases overtaken us. At least outside of the BC profession, we seem to lack the passion that was demonstrated in the final plenary story of the recovery of Spirit Aerosystems (From EF3 To FOB (Freight On Board) In 33 Days: Resilience At Spirit AeroSystems). Also, we just cannot do teamwork like the USA. We seem to be a crowd of individuals, whereas the U.S. seems, from an external perspective, to be more cohesive in the face of adversity.

Observation 5

Americans are really good at email.

Today between 4:00 and 4:40, I emailed four Americans who I met at the conference. I did not actually know nor indeed care what time zone they were in, as I expected a reply in about 24 to 48 hours. But within an hour and a half, I had replies from all four, naturally all of them very encouraging and unfailingly upbeat. This was stunning.

This would be lot less likely to happen in Britain, as we still see the email as a faint intrusive annoyance and we really miss the childish excitement of waiting for the sound of the postman at the letter box, or I should now say postal operative.

Observation 6

The Brits are cynical prigs who still think they run an empire and know better than anyone else.

This is totally true, but we always say it with such a great accent!

Authored by a Needhams 1834 Consultant.