Risk Intelligence: A New Approach

Editor’s Note: This article is a continuation of last month’s “Highly Risk Intelligence School Districts” by Lee Gaby. Please see the August 2022 edition online at school-busride.com for that article.

The concept of risk intelligence can be understood as practices that go before, along with, and beyond risk management. Whenever there is a concern for safety and security, there is also the necessity of risk intelligence. Conventional risk management usually falls short in advancing better decision-making processes related to district operations and instructional strategies. When risk is defined only as the failure to adequately protect existing assets and prevent loss  the rewards of reasoned, calculated risk taking  are often neglected at potentially high cost to the district’s future success.


The concept of risk intelligence can be understood as practices that go before, along with, and beyond risk management. Whenever there is a concern for safety and security, there is also the necessity of risk intelligence. Conventional risk management usually falls short in advancing better decision-making processes related to district operations and instructional strategies. When risk is defined only as the failure to adequately protect existing assets and prevent loss  the rewards of reasoned, calculated risk taking  are often neglected at potentially high cost to the district’s future success. 

Risk intelligence is an antidote for excessive fear and doubt. While the protection of existing assets is necessary, it is not sufficient for student achievement. Nor is crisis management a desirable means for creating opportunities for today’s students as they grow to become tomorrow’s citizens. 

Organizational strategists apply risk intelligence when discussing integrative systems. It belongs in any conversation about improving readiness, reliability, resilience, agility, governance, compliance, strategy, value creation, well-being and leadership. Ultimately, everyone in the district has a role to play, because risk-related decisions are made daily at every level of the K12 educational enterprise.

Highly Risk Intelligent is the Way Forward

Improving consequential decision making in order to meet the expectations of stakeholders is an imperative for K12 leaders. 

Best practice models for thinking and acting are frequently depicted as three-dimensional and operational at the same time on multiple levels. The metaphor of a “three level chess game” can also be useful in explaining the shared mindset needed in district to be highly risk intelligent. 

A 3D framework for risk intelligence is suggested in this case, and it should operate at four levels as follows: 

• At the first level – the base of outcomes – the three dimensions of risk intelligence are readiness, reliability and resilience. 

• At the second level – the means of activation- the three dimensions of risk intelligence are holistic thinking, common language about risk, and predictive tools. 

• At the third level – core of learning – the three dimensions of risk intelligence are concepts, supports and skills.

• At the fourth level – structure of agency – the three dimensions of risk intelligence are personal, team and enterprise.

As shown here, the use of a tetrahedron helps illustrate the
3D framework.

Five Levels of Risk Intelligence Maturity

Districts should understand how to monitor the growth and application of risk intelligence. A sound measurement process will help ensure that assessments are performed to properly gauge whether exposures exist in the right mix, consistent with thoughtful reflection on a reasonable “risk appetite.” Ultimately, Risk Intelligence should be treated as a component of the district’s student achievement and fiscal health balanced scorecard.  

Mature risk intelligence is a function of sound risk governance and leadership. This requires a top-down view of district wide strategies and programs, led by the Superintendent and the Board. Maturity also means bottom-up engagement, where teams identify and monitor the growth of their risk intelligence. Risk intelligence should be embedded in the fiber and fabric of school and district wide culture.

The Education Risk Intelligence Center has begun designing a Risk Intelligence Maturity Model to serve as a roadmap for accelerating the journey from an existing baseline of risk intelligence to a position as a highly risk intelligent district. Maturity in this context is the ability to fully understand the environment and advance consistently toward district goals and objectives.  

At the Sustaining Level of maturity, the district has completely moved to an integrated approach to readiness, reliability and resilience that includes an understanding of exposures and risk treatment in the context of performance and objectives. Consistent risk intelligence processes span the entire district and ecosystem. 80 percent or more of current employees can apply the ten skills of school risk intelligence.

Each of the five levels of maturity is described briefly in the following paragraphs.

1: Stagnant

Districts at the Stagnant stage of maturity have reactive approaches to readiness, reliability and resilience, doing assessments only when mandated to do so. Administrator’s commitment to growing their risk intelligence is limited and few if any resources are allocated to professional development that increases decision-making capacity. There is almost no ownership or formal monitoring of hazards  integration of effort information and processes in context of objectives, strategy, performance, and business change.

Characteristics of the Stagnant level  are:
•Ad hoc or chaotic responses to risk.
•Possibly strong verbal traditions, but few clearly defined policies and procedures.
•Record of missed opportunities and inconsistent responses to recurring problems.
•Responses based on individual heroics, capabilities, and verbal traditions.
•Little or no learning captured from experience.
•Individual and/or specialist reactions to adverse events and opportunities.
•Discrete management roles established for a small set of risks.
•Lack of coordinated response.
•Lack of common language of risk and value.
•Learning occurs primarily within silos, with little knowledge sharing.
•Potential to experience multiple crises, often moving from one to the next.

 

2: Searching

At the Searching levels there are some departments with some focus on risk management and business continuity within respective areas, yet they are remain disconnected and inconsistent. Information and processes are unnecessarily redundant and lack integration.

The approaches to readiness, reliability and resilience are very compliance oriented and document-centric. Manual processes and absence of standardization is common.

Characteristics of the Searching level  are:
• Siloed approach to risk and continuity/resilience in different departments.
• Starting to determine a roadmap, with pockets of good practice emerging.
• Basic continuity plans and understanding of risk in place, and some standardization and qualification of risk.
• Risk Intelligence framework agreed on; not implemented.
• Risk Intelligence governance and processes not fully embedded.
• Processes are defined at the department level.
• Some aspects of Risk Intelligence; not in an integrated or structured way.
• No integration or sharing of continuity plans between functions.
• Reliance on fragmented technology and lots of documents.
• Measurement and trending are difficult.

 

3: Striving

At the Striving level the district has some areas of readiness, reliability and resilience that are managed well at a department level, but it lacks integration to address risk intelligence across departments. Districts at the Striving level will have defined processes in some departments or business functions, but there is no consistency. Risk intelligence processes have the beginning of an integrated information architecture supported by technology and ongoing reporting. Accountability and oversight for certain domains such as business continuity, disaster recovery, and/or enterprise and operational risk management are beginning to emerge.

Characteristics of the Striving level  are:
•Good tone set at the top and clear values.
•A well-defined and communicated framework for policies, procedures, and risk authorities.
•Defined business-function responsibilities for risk management.
•Primarily qualitative risk assessments.
•Largely reactive but some shared learning and proactive responses.
•Improved chances of surviving surviving and thriving.

 

4: Stretching

At the Stretching level the district has a cross department strategy for managing readiness, reliability and resilience across departments and functions. Risk intelligence is aligned across several departments to provide consistent strategy, frameworks, and processes supported by a common risk and resilience information and technology architecture.

Characteristics of the Stretching level  are:
• Integrated proactive responses to both adverse and opportunistic events.
• Performance-linked risk and value metrics. (qualitative and quantitative)
• Timely and rapid escalation of risks and opportunities to decision makers.
• Cultural transformation underway.
• Bottom-up as well as top-down communications.

 

5: Sustaining

At the Sustaining level, the district has completely moved to an integrated approach to risk and resilience management across the business that includes an understanding of risk and compliance in context of performance and objectives. Consistent risk intelligence processes span the entire district and its ecosystem. Stakeholders benefit from consistent, relevant, and harmonized processes for risk intelligence with minimal overhead.

The Sustaining level is where highly risk intelligent districts enjoy the greatest balance in collaborative readiness, reliability, and resilience. Their maturity allows for some department/business functional autonomy where needed, and maintains a common governance model and architecture. The Sustaining level is characterized by agility and the capabilities to connect, understand, analyze, and monitor relationships and underlying patterns of impact on performance, objectives.

Characteristics of the Sustaining level  are:
• “Felt” leadership and the right tone at top, middle, and bottom.
• Key risk and value factors built into all key decision-making processes. (risk ownership is everyone’s job)
• Common adoption of risk intelligence skills and a resulting high state of vigilance and preparedness.
• Effective signal detection of potential shifts in the environment or district activities.
• Decision interactions managed with incentives.
• Sustainable activities model and practices that improve chances of balanced scorecard success.

Establishing Your District Risk Intelligence Growth Program

To achieve the full benefits from risk intelligence, the following steps should be taken:

• Gain internal support and sponsorship of the risk intelligence growth strategy. District leaders should work in harmony to advance readiness, reliability and resilience. Superintendent support is critical to align the strategy for raising risk intelligence.

• Establish a dedicated cross-functional team focused on powering up professional development cohorts. This team can identify strengths within existing functions and help champion an empowerment program that determines the baseline risk intelligence level. The goal of this team should be to develop learning processes and sharing information.

• Adopt a Risk Intelligence framework. Define who “owns the risk,” identify the subject matter experts for exposures, and which function or process monitors exposures. Policies, controls, and issues should be mapped back to the framework.

• Anchor Risk Intelligence in the Culture. While management can create robust risk management techniques and guidelines, it is usually the “unwritten” norms that govern behaviors. Open the lines of communication to help build promote holistic thinking, a common language about risk and greater use of forward-looking tools.

Putting It All Together

The importance of executive leadership – including setting the district’s ethical stance, voice, and culture – is essential to building and sustaining risk intelligence. Failure to adapt, flying blind, or “playing musical chairs” have all led to major setbacks for districts. Training, cameras, and seat belts provide a certain degree of security. Handrails, school bus stop arms, and PPE are just a small part of a safety program.

Without sufficient risk intelligence, unfortunately there will be more gaps, more disruptions, more oversights, and ultimately more missed goals, injuries, and added costs.

Risk intelligent administrators understand that conventional safety and risk management only go so far.

They also recognize the opportunities interwoven in every challenge. A culture that recognizes well thought out ownership of risk is essential for dealing with the complexity in today’s school operations.

Greater risk intelligence will help everyone accurately define reality, more fully appreciate limitations, and continuously improve the culture and skills that keep schools functioning at peak performance over the long run.


Lee Gaby is Board chair and co-founder of the Education Risk Intelligence Center PBC. The views expressed are those of the author.

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