Boston – Drink Like You’re in Bombay

A huge water pipe broke in eastern Massachusetts earlier today, taking out the clean water supply to Boston and most of the surrounding cities and towns, probably for several days or even a week.  Listening to the news, I was unhappy with the incomplete guidance offered to the public initially.  The first set of instructions today was simply to boil your drinking water, but washing with tap water is okay.  Anyone who has lived in a country without clean water knows that there is a bit more to it:

  • Boil more water than you need for drinking right now, and cool and store it, so that you have it when needed and will have a supply in case you also lose the ability to boil more (power cuts anyone?).
  • Put bottles of clean water by all of your sinks, so that you remember to use it when brushing your teeth.
  • If you use tap water for washing dishes, don’t wipe them with a damp towel, potentially transferring pathogens from one dish to another.  Add a disinfecting agent to the wash and rinse water, and allow to air dry.
  • Close your mouth and eyes when showering.
  • Supervise children’s bathing, and give babies sponge baths.
  • etc.

When the fuller set of guidelines started to emerge on the night news, one of my kids watching TV with me said, “It’s just like India, isn’t it?”  and she’s right, it is.   We followed these guidelines for the year we lived in Pune, as do people living in developing countries all around the world – or suffer the consequences of intestinal troubles.

The incident highlights two messages for international business managers:

  1. The majority of Americans have little awareness about poor infrastructure and the daily life challenges in developing countries.  When working with a global team in both developed and developing countries, build an awareness of this into your expectations and work plan.  Don’t assume that your employees or contractors in low cost locations can make phone calls or get online outside of the office.  Be aware that you may see a greater frequency of illness among your team and their family members in lower cost locations than you’re used to in the U.S.   Prepare yourself, and allow room in the schedule, for things you can’t possible foresee, that will inevitably arise.  You know about different holiday schedules and weather issues in different parts of the world, but what about the day that a relocating employee spent getting cooking gas for a new apartment?
  2. Somewhat counter-intuitively, make sure to build in redundancy for your developed country locations, not just your developing country locations.  This water incident reminds me how much Americans tend to take the public infrastructure for granted, and while the U.S. is much better at this after 9/11, there are still surprising gaps.  Every IT campus in India has computers plugged into UPS outlets with back-up power generators, but a server in Chicago can be taken out when a blizzard causes a power outage.  When a major underwater fiber cable was sliced  off the coast of India, most international businesses had redundant access and shifted over their traffic, losing speed and bandwidth, but still able to conduct business. But when an internet cable was cut in Boston’s Big Dig, some of the country’s largest corporations found themselves without any internet access for many hours.   If your work is mission-critical, take some lessons from the business continuity planning required in your developing country locations and review your US plans with a fresh eye.
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