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When Nature Throws Us a Curveball

Remember the old ads that said it wasn't nice to fool Mother Nature? Lately it seems that Mother Nature has been getting even with us.

Exploding volcanoes led to the biggest worldwide disruption in air travel since 9/11. Major earthquakes caused death and destruction in Haiti and Chile. Hurricanes, floods, tornados have all been in the new lately.

No matter how advanced we've become, we are still at the mercy of natural forces. All the technology in the world doesn't help us fly jumbo jets through volcanic ash that shuts down jet engines or allow us to easily maneuver amidst earth tremors that crush buildings.

Not much we can do about these kinds of situations. Or is there?

We live in a highly connected, highly technology-dependent society. When we can't get to where we need to be quickly, our plans disintegrate, projects grind to a halt, family events are put on hold, and business disrupted.

There's no way to prepare for every conceivable type of disaster, and certainly it's frustrating to find ourselves on the wrong end of a cancelled flight thousands of miles from home and family. But as businesses we can be better prepared.

I'm not talking about distaste preparation and business continuity, though those certainly are extremely important, but more in terms of how we can help our customers accomplish their goals without physically traveling and being in a specific place.

We live in a time when physical place is not the critical factor it used to be. Not only do we have an interconnected, globally interdependent "flat" world, but we now also have the technological ability to have activities and events come to us, rather than us to them.

At the high end of the spectrum, telepresence has transformed meetings and travel by fulfilling the promise long distance once made us to be "the next best thing to being there." At the low end, low cost Flip videos allow us to easily capture and share events on the spur of the moment. Combine this with the ability to integrate video into websites or share photos on Flickr or video on YouTube (now the second biggest search engine on the Web), and all kinds of possibilities emerge.

It was not the long ago that we heralded a new age of connection and communication through the power of the Internet. In just a few short years, that connectedness has evolved and morphed from something only a few people could take advantage of at work to more of a mass audience at home on desktop computers, to more portable laptops and now to mobile devices like smart phones and iPads.

What this means is that when volcanoes erupt over Iceland, business is transacted without travel. When earthquakes devastate Haiti and Chile, medical assistance is coordinated through mobile devices and relief funds are collected through social media. When an oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing millions of gallons of oil into the environment, both the scope of the disaster (in this case man-made) and the response are transparent and well-documented.

The question for businesses is how well are you prepared to support your customers in these new ways, under these novel and perhaps extreme conditions? Do you know what they need and how you'll deliver it under less than optimal conditions? How will you respond to unpredictable, extraordinary and emotionally driven customer needs? Can you meet and even perhaps exceed expectations?

Granted, there are some things that still require physical presence in this new world. Until we master the art of Star Trek-like molecular transport, we'll be stuck with relying on trains, boats, autos and planes to get people and physical entities like food and medical supplies from point A to point B. But considering how to integrate new technologies in our offerings now can help us be ready to react next time Mother Nature requires us to act. To quote Captain Picard, we need to be ready to "Make it so."

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