The Art of Making Nuanced Risk Assessments

Risks have well-known similarities. All risks present a potential impact on an organization and management also does not know if or when they will transpire. However, there are also important and distinguishing differences among major categories of risk that should be considered. Not all risks should be subjected to the same assessment methodology.  

Four kinds of risk
For this discussion, we segregate risks into the following broad categories: strategic risk, operational risk, financial risk and compliance risk.
  • Strategic. This is the risk that the business model is not effec­tively aligned with the strategy or that one or more future events may invalidate fundamental assumptions underlying the strategy. These risks relate primarily to the external environment (e.g., the actions of competitors, changing cus­tomer wants, technological innovation and the actions of regulators).


  • Operational. This is the risk of one or more future events impair­ing the effectiveness or viability of the business model in creating value for customers and achieving expected financial results. These risks relate to the various business activities along the value chain within which the organization’s business model is applied (e.g., the supply chain, customer fulfillment processes, human resources, information technology, key channels, key customers and end users).
  • Financial. This is the risk that cash flows and financial risks are not managed cost-effectively to (a) maximize cash availabil­ity and preserve liquidity, (b) reduce uncertainty of currency, interest rate, credit, counterparty and other financial risks, or (c) move cash funds quickly and without loss of value and at minimal cost to wherever they are needed most.


  • Compliance. This is the risk of non-compliance with laws, regula­tions, internal policies and/or contractual arrangements resulting in penalties, fines, increased costs, lost revenue and/or reputation loss. Financial reporting is a form of com­pliance risk for public companies.
Measurement and time horizon
There are different ways to distinguish these four categories of risk. First, there is susceptibility to measurement. The above categories of risk are not subject to the same level of precision from a quantification standpoint. Strategic risks, as defined above, arise primarily from invalid assumptions and a lack of alignment in execution. Given their nature, the ana­lytical framework applied to these risks must be more qualitative than for other risks.
For example, interest rate and other price risks are easier to size in terms of their impact on the business by using sce­nario analyses, stress tests and value-at-risk frameworks that take into account changes in the economy and market volatility. Strategic risks arising from invalid assumptions, on the other hand, are more about obtaining sufficient knowl­edge of expected economic trends, competitors, customers, suppliers, regulators and other external environmental factors to evaluate whether the critical assumptions underlying the strategy remain valid.
Second, there is time horizon, the period of time over which management assesses the level of risk and the alternatives for managing risk. The longer the assessment horizon, the more likely a stated scenario or event could occur. Because they are a function of the board’s and executive management’s long-term view of the market and the expected pace of change, strategic risks have a longer time horizon than other risks.
By contrast, operational risks typically have a shorter horizon, as they are often evaluated in the context of the business planning cycle. For instance, one company’s board requested that management conduct two risk assessments: one for one year, to mirror the horizon for the annual budget, and the other for three years, to mirror the horizon for the strategic plan.
The time horizon can be a significant factor in determining the currency of the organization’s risk assessment in a rapidly changing environment. The time horizon also can have an impact on management’s risk response options. For example, some issues, such as a capacity shortage at a manufacturing company, can be quite severe over the short term. However, most risks, including capacity, are less of an issue over the longer term because management has more flexibility to make adjustments.
Outcomes and response
The third way to distinguish among risks is variability in outcomes. This suggests that exposure to risk can result in either upside or downside consequences. Compensated risks are two-sided and present potential for upside.
If we were to list all foreseeable future outcomes arising from the risk, including an estimate of the net cash flows relating to each possible outcome that are discounted to their present values, we would have a range of outcomes with both net positive and net negative cash flow results, giving rise to performance variability.
Because an effective strategy is about pursuing the best bets in the context of the enterprise’s risk/reward balance, compensated risks are often inseparable from the execution of the enterprise’s strategy. The risks are compensated because the potential for upside is sufficient to warrant accepting the downside exposure. The risks associated with initiating operations in new markets, introducing new products, or undertaking large research and development projects are common examples of these risks.
By contrast, uncompensated risks are one-sided because they offer the potential for downside with little or no upside potential (i.e., every foreseeable future outcome results in net cash outflows, creating a loss exposure). Uncompensated risks would, for example, include environmental, health and safety risks where there is very little, if any, upside over the long term to cutting corners and taking shortcuts that accumulate and create unacceptable risks.
Finally, there is nature of response. A decision to accept a risk can lead to a conclusion that the risk should be retained, reduced or exploited. A decision to reject a risk can lead to a conclusion to avoid it altogether or transfer it to an independent, financially capable third party.
There is a ‘decision tree’ of sorts around evaluating how to respond to a risk. This decision tree is navigated differently depending on the nature of the risk. For example, compliance risks are often managed through policies and procedures designed to reduce the risks to an acceptable level. Strategic risks, however, may arise from uncertainties requiring ongoing monitoring of the environment to ensure strategic assumptions remain valid over time. Operational risks may require better alignment of pro­cesses along the value chain or the development of rapid response plans in the event a critical component of the value chain, such as a key supplier, is lost.
Once we recognize that the four categories of risk – strategic, operational, financial and compliance – vary according to their distinguishing characteristics, it becomes clearer why the analytical frameworks used to assess each category should be designed to consider those unique characteristics.
An operational perspective
Often, an operational assessment is directed to assessing performance against quality, time, innovation and cost targets to identify gaps in process performance. Significant performance gaps lead to decisions around making appropriate mid-course corrections or analyzing root causes with the objective of determining actionable process improvements to close the gaps. Given this traditional approach to an operational review, the question arises as to the appropriate level of focus when evaluating operational risks.
The reality of today’s business environment is that the enterprise has no boundaries. It is not an island. Accordingly, the appropriate risk assessment approach applied to operational risks suggests the need for an end-to-end, extended enterprise view of the value chain, requiring looking upstream to supplier relationships, including strategic suppliers, as well as downstream to channels, customer relationships and the ultimate end users.
For instance, a consumer packaging company serves the needs of consumer products companies in marketing their products to their customers. The marketing strategies of its customers, as well as the preferences of the ultimate consumers, can have a significant impact on demand for the company’s packaging products.
In effect, the enterprise’s business relationships are just as important to its success as its internal processes, personnel and systems because they are inextricably linked to what makes the business model work. Therefore, the assessment of operational risk is directed to understanding the risk of loss to, or ineffective performance of, any of the key links in the chain. By contrast, a ‘four-walls’-oriented approach will miss the big picture, because it focuses solely on the company’s internal processes and systems risks.
Case study: Supplier inputs
What would happen to the organization’s business model if any key component of the value chain were (a) taken away through either failure or an unexpected catastrophic loss or (b) altered in a significant way to place the company at a strategic disadvantage?
In an ‘extended end-to-end enterprise’ analysis, the focus will be on the entire value chain and the company’s positioning within that chain. For example, which suppliers does the company depend on for essential inputs? Such inputs include raw materials, component parts and supplies, as well as the transportation for delivering them to the company’s facilities in a timely manner.
Questions that can arise when evaluating supplier inputs include:
  • Are we confident that strategic suppliers meet specifications?
  • What if one or more strategic suppliers were lost?
  • What if there were temporary shortages in raw materials?
  • What if there were serious defects in supplier inputs?
  • What if there were significant disruptions in transportation?
  • What if one or more of the above events caused material volatility in costs?
Will the company’s key suppliers take corrective action in the event of a disaster? Is there a formalized understanding and agreement in place? One company had a major supplier decide to discontinue the manufacture of key component parts for its products, and the company had to take this production process in-house in order to continue doing business.
Other inputs include the available labor force and talent pool, the availability of power at a reasonable price, lines of credit and working capital.
Company processes
With respect to company processes, there are other considerations. For example, there are high-value employees on whom the company truly depends; critical processes, systems and facilities; and key outputs, products and services. In addition, the company’s products and services are distributed through channels to major customers, and there are transportation and logistics considerations.
What would happen if any of these elements of the value chain were taken away? Said another way, at every stage of the value creation process, what would be the implications of a shortage, disruption or quality problem in an input or output? How long would the company be able to operate? What if major customers were to fail? What if vital customer contracts were not renewed? What if key customers were to consolidate? What if weather patterns adversely affected customer demand? What would be the impact on the business?
When evaluating operational risks, management should consider the following factors: 
  • The velocity or speed to impact, including whether the loss of any critical component of the value chain can occur with­out warning (i.e., does it smolder or is it sudden?)
  • The persistence of the impact (i.e., the expected duration of time before the loss of the component can be replaced)
  • The resiliency of the company in responding to a cata­strophic event
  • The extent of uncompensated risks the company faces across the value chain (e.g., increased warranty costs and/or product recalls or the potential for increased environmental, health and safety exposures)
These issues should be considered periodically when conduct­ing operational reviews. Note that while the likelihood of occurrence can be a consideration, it may not be as significant a factor in evaluating exposure to catastrophic events as the enterprise’s response readiness. Sooner or later, every company faces a crisis. Even the most effective risk management cannot prevent this exposure.
Just as a crisis is a severe manifestation of risk, crisis manage­ment is the natural follow-on to risk management. A rapid response to sudden, unexpected events depends upon the enterprise’s crisis management capabilities.
Fires cannot be fought with a committee. Building a capable crisis manage­ment capability is a management imperative for risks with a high velocity to a severe reputation impact. A world-class response to a persistent crisis is vital to the company’s ultimate recovery from it. Risk assessments focused on velocity to impact, the persistence of the impact, and response readiness can help identify areas where preparedness is more critical.
A compliance perspective
The traditional approach for assessing compliance risks focuses on the severity of impact and likelihood of occurrence, often on a residual risk basis. This approach often results in a cluster of low likelihood risks with varying levels of poten­tial severity, and fails to address the potential implications to the enterprise of a breakdown in established policies and procedures.
In lieu of mindless guesswork on probabilities, companies should consider the effects of non-compliance events in terms of the following factors:
  • The impact on reputation (e.g., fines, penalties, loss of revenues, legal fees and other costs, loss of market capitalization, the “spotlight attraction” effect)
  • The velocity or speed to impact, including whether the effects of non-compliance can occur without warning and how quickly the effects can escalate, attracting media and regulatory attention
  • The persistence of the impact (i.e., the duration of time over which the non-compliance event will affect the company)
  • The enterprise’s response readiness (i.e., how resilient the company is in responding to a non-compliance event)
As with operational risks, the ‘no boundaries’ view of the enterprise can have an impact on compliance risks. For exam­ple, lead content, toxic materials, impure ingredients and other inputs provided by suppliers that do not meet specifica­tions aligned with the laws and regulations to which the company is subject can damage the company’s brand and reputation in the market, regardless of the suppliers’ culpabil­ity.
While compliance risk management addresses applicable laws and regulations rather than the effects of market forces or customer behavior, many of the same forces that drive other risk categories have an impact on compliance risk. Per­sonnel attrition, influx of new personnel, rapid growth, new technology, increased complexity, speed to market and other performance pressures, for example, can create an environ­ment in which compliance issues can arise. So, too, can the business customs of different countries, new lines of busi­ness, new acquisitions and corporate restructuring. 
Financial reporting risks, a variant of compliance risks, are a separate conversation. Given the structure provided by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance process in the United States and similar processes in other countries, most companies understand that these risks, and the related internal control environment, require a separate assessment framework that focuses on financial reporting assertions.
The point of our discussion is that subjecting all risks to the same analytical framework is not the most efficient and effective approach to integrating risk management with the core management processes of the business. In our view, an enterprise risk management process does not envision that all risks be sub­ject to the same assessment methodology.
We suggest that robust approaches applied to different risk categories accord­ing to the underlying characteristics of risks are needed to identify the top risks of those categories. Those approaches then would feed an overarching process that management uses to develop a risk profile, merging the top risks to sum­marize the vital few “critical enterprise risks” upon which management and the board should center their mutual focus.
About the Author
Protiviti is a global business consulting and internal audit firm composed of experts specialising in risk advisory and transaction services. It provides perspectives on a wide range of critical business issues for clients in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.

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