From outsized events, we often attempt to draw outsized lessons, as if we have to match the scale of a storm or a flood or an earthquake with what we take away from them, as if suffering must always generate a commensurate wisdom.
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Sometimes, of course, it does. We learned large, valuable lessons from 9/11 and Katrina, for instance, while the countries around the Indian Ocean have done the same from the 2004 tsunami, and the Chinese are still learning (however slowly) from the devastating Sichuan earthquakes of 2008. From national security to social solidarity, and from the nature and purpose of government to the natural interconnectedness of all the world's nations, these events called for big thinking on major issues, leading to significant change.
Sometimes, though, there is no larger lesson, no great takeaway to justify the tragedy, the disruption, the loss and the suffering. In the week since Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, I have heard different people try to draw different lessons from it, saying that we must use it as a rallying cry or wake-up call to address issues as wide-ranging as climate change, income disparity and social division, or the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of different levels of government.
In the end, I suspect Sandy won't sustain any of these larger lessons. Despite the undeniable tragedies - the lives lost, the many homes destroyed -- its lessons are smaller. They don't speak to major social issues, but to more personal things like keeping in touch with family; like letting neighbors without hot water take a shower, or letting strangers without power charge up their phones; and like keeping your cool in a long line for gas. They are also about sweating the small stuff: having a go-kit and bottled water, knowing your escape routes, learning what dangers your town or region is susceptible to and how to react to each, having rallying points and agreed-upon emergency procedures for your family or your business, and having a plan.
The last part -- having a plan -- is an area where accounting firms can play a unique and important role. Who better to teach lessons of prudence and preparedness than CPAs? The profession has done great things with teaching financial literacy to individuals, and could do similar things with helping individuals prepare for disaster.
More important, though, accountants are in a great position to teach their business clients. Who better to tell businesses of all sizes that they need create plans to ensure that they can weather whatever comes their way? This is detail work -- setting up communication trees, assessing the security and accessibility of off-site data storage, reviewing or recommending insurance plans, researching alternative office arrangements - exactly the sort of thing businesses rely on their accountants for.
Disaster recovery has been a serious concern for almost a decade, so we were glad, in the wake of Sandy, to see a number of firms in the area quickly ensure their own safety and viability with advanced disaster recovery plans -- and then reach out to their clients, offering to help them in a wide variety of ways.
At the risk of seeming crass, this is a valuable service. Assuming you develop the necessary expertise, teaching your clients how to set up and implement a disaster recovery plan, or assessing whatever plan they have in place, would make a strong addition to a firm's practice areas.
But even if you don't take it that far, even if you just make a point of asking your business clients if they have a plan, and suggesting that they develop one if they don't, it's a valuable contribution. It may be a small lesson, but it's worth learning -- and accountants can teach it well.