The four questions you need to ask to balance external collaboration and risk management

In Darkest Hour there’s a scene in which Winston Churchill is almost begging Franklin Roosevelt for the warplanes that they had ordered, and now desperately needed. It got me thinking about collaboration and about how important it can be for gaining capability; and how badly it can go if we don’t assess the new risks that collaborating entails. I’ll refer back to this scenario throughout the post but please note that for the history buffs, I know I’m not being historically accurate.

Collaboration is essential to doing business – I don’t think this is in dispute (if you’d like to dispute it, I’ll happily debate you). What I don’t think gets talked about often enough is how we should think about the decision to collaborate. All collaboration should be cost-benefit based, with the decision predicated on whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

I’ve found that the frame below a useful way to think about the decision to collaborate with another organisation.

There are four basic questions that need answering:

  1. What benefit is there to collaborating?
  2. What new risks does the collaboration expose us to?
  3. Can you effectively mitigate the risks?
  4. Who has the authority to decide whether the balance is right?

1. What benefit is there to collaborating?

The UK needed planes to fight a resurgent Germany – but should they build them, or collaborate to get what they needed sooner and maybe even cheaper?

Stage 1 must be about quantifying the gain from collaboration. Collaboration is always about achieving objectives cost-effectively. If your organisation can already achieve the objective cost effectively, you don’t need to collaborate. Your thesis should be that collaborating will let you will gain access to information, capability or knowledge at a cost that makes the risks of collaborating worth the organisational gain. The deliverable from this stage should be a cost-benefit analysis.

2. What new risks does the collaboration expose you to?

Getting the planes sooner and cheaper gives the UK more capability, and more reserves to buy more capability if they need it – but what risks will relying on the US introduce?

Collaboration will always expose your business to new risks – so stage 2 should be identifying and quantifying them. New risks will principally come from two places –

  1.  The fact that your counter-party will always have better information about what they offer.
  2. The information you will expose about and from your business while collaborating.

To get this assessment right, you should seek input from experts in all areas of your business. Once you have an accurate risk register, and assessment of the magnitude of harm, you can move on to mitigation strategies.

3. Can you effectively mitigate the risks?

The war winning or losing question – if the US doesn’t deliver the planes when we need them, what do we do?

Once you understand the risks, mitigation measures can be defined. Risk mitigation will look to balance the incentives of involved parties, minimise the amount of information leakage, make sure adequate information about service quality is available, and ensure that adequate backup plans are in place. Once you understand your ability to effectively mitigate each risk, you can then make a call about whether to insure against or accept any residual risks.

4. Who has the authority to decide whether the balance is right?

Get it right – and the UK gets the planes and has the capability it needs to defend itself. Get it wrong, and the UK faces a resurgent Germany without what it needs to defend itself. Who had the authority to risk the future of the United Kingdom on this collaboration?

Someone in the organisation will need to accept the risks of a new collaboration. How high in the organisation they are will depend on the impact of loss. If you know who this person is, you should consider their appetite for risk early on and include that in your early go/no-go decisions. It goes without saying that putting together a great case for someone whose’ risk aversion won’t let you move forward should be avoided.

Conclusion

We all collaborate many times a day without thinking about it. When we go across the boundary of our organisation, the dynamic changes. We should be doing it because there is a cost-benefit relationship that lets us access information, capability and knowledge at far below the cost of developing it. Benefits though are only one side, we need to also consider the risks and whether we are able to take those risks on behalf of our organisation. If you keep this frame in mind, you should get good outcomes.

Does this reflect your view on collaboration and how it should be approached? If not, I’d love to hear from you and understand why.

Reducing risk in government contractor engagements by improving information governance

The last two decades have seen a step change in the methods we use to interact with contractors. Generally speaking, the primary means of engagement is now digital. This has brought with it significant reductions in the cost of engagement, and reduced the time to commencement of work. It has also increased the volume of engagements each employee is expected to support, and the quantum of risk associated with incorrect transfers of information. In discussions with many government entities I have found a number of common areas in which expensive problems occur frequently, that I also believe can be substantially reduced by improving information governance around each engagement.

Incorrect version transmittals. In organisations that run large projects, I’ve found that transmittals are still error prone. Large transmittals (lots of documents, or large documents) generally go out as multiple emails or on physical media – paper or digital. When they do, the probability of using an incorrect document version increases substantially and has obvious consequences for the financial and completion timeline of a project.

Provision and capture of as-built documentation. As-built documentation is typically large and held in systems inaccessible outside the organisation. It almost always has changes that need to be captured in a system of record after an engagement. Content is large enough and changed exclusively digitally, so transmission needs to be via electronic medium, or post work updates become very difficult. After an engagement, capture and correct storage of updated as-built documentation is again difficult. The risks are clear, when access isn’t provided and updates aren’t captured effectively, engagements start with incorrect information that leads to variations and re-work.

Capture of compliance documentation. Compliance documentation is a fact of life for contractor engagements. Workcover, insurance, safe work method statements etc. Good contractor management dictates that this documentation should be captured and stored in an organisational system of record and preferably associated with the specific work. Breakdown in this capture process is usually only noticed when there is a project failure. It can often be explained by an over-reliance on email, and failure to follow information governance processes. Mailbox limits frequently dictate that people will archive to repositories that are typically ungoverned and which can lead to a variety of significant liability scenarios.

Proof of work. Proof of work for contractor engagements has gone electronic over the last few years, particularly where it involves small construction or physical maintenance tasks. In some scenarios, inspectors capture photos of completed work, in others, contractors provide photos to prove completion. In each scenario, the problem is the same, the photo is provided, the payment is ordered, everyone moves on to the next project, often without the proof of work being captured in a system of record. I have spoken to records managers supporting legal action who counted themselves lucky for being faced with directories of several thousand photos with descriptive names like “DSCP1101”. The reality is that photographic proof is often lost with the email archive or laptop of the employee who ordered the work.

Ultimately, each of these scenarios can lead to substantial loss, and reflects an information governance challenge that is relatively simple to address. Many of these challenges can be traced to contractors’ lack of access to information governance systems. Manual work arounds and transfers from a system of record to an ungoverned system (ie. email and paper) introduce information risk that can easily be avoided.

Good solutions to this problem start by ensuring that there is a single source of truth for engagement information, and that all staff and contractors involved have access to it. They wrap an information governance framework around the engagement processes, ensuring that when evidence of transmittal, completion, or compliance is needed, it has been captured, is available and its source is known. This is a gap I’ve often encountered within the government organisations that I deal with. Historically this gap has been caused by tool cost and the security status of cloud platforms. Recent changes to the Australian Government Protective Security Policy Framework, and Information Security Manual mean that tools like our own Objective Connect and others are now viable for use by government. If you’re having trouble controlling risks like the ones above, a tool like ours should be on your list to examine.