Assurance vs. Risk Management

August 29, 2012

One of my current hot button is the over-emphasis of assurance with regards to risk management. I recently was given visibility to a risk management framework where ‘management assurance’ was listed as the goal of the framework. However, the framework did not allow for management to actually manage risk.

Recently at BSidesLA I attempted to reduce the definitions of risk and ‘risk management’ down to fundamental attributes because there are so many different – and in a lot of cases contextually valid – definitions of risk.

Risk: Something that can happen that can result in loss. It is about the frequency of events that can have an adverse impact to our time, resources and of course our money.

Risk Management: Activities that allow us to reduce our uncertainty about risk(s) so we can make good trade off decisions.

So how does this tie into assurance? The shortcoming with an assurance-centric approach to risk management is that assurance IMPLIES 100% certainty that all risks are known and that all identified controls are comprehensive and effective. An assurance-centric approach also implies that a control gap, control failure or some other issue HAS to be mitigated so management can have FULL assurance regarding their risk management posture.

Where risk management comes into play is when management does not require with having 100% assurance because there may not be adequate benefit to their span of control or the organization proper. Thus, robust risk management frameworks need to have a management response process – i.e. risk treatment decisions – when issues or gaps are identified. A management response and risk treatment decision process has a few benefits:

1. It promotes transparency and accountability of management’s decisions regarding their risk management mindset (tolerance, appetite, etc.).

2. It empowers management to make the best business decision (think trade-off) given the information (containing elements of uncertainty) provided to them.

3. It potentially allows organizations to better understand the ‘total cost of risk’ (TCoR) relative to other operational costs associated with the business.

So here are the take-aways:

1. Assurance does always not equate to effective risk management.

2. Effective risk management can facilitate levels of assurance, confidence as well one’s understanding of uncertainty regarding loss exposures they are faced with.

3. Empowering and enabling management to make effective risk treatment decisions can provide management a level of assurance that they are running their business they way they deem fit.

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