Global Storm Clouds Rising

TankThe recent turbulence in the global financial markets is raising the by now too familiar questions in the trade press.  Who is managing the risk? Where is the oversight? Could this financial turmoil have been avoided if associated risks had been managed more proactively? Manage has a positive connotation, implying that someone is in control, as in “The governor is managing the coastal flooding event.” Risk has a negative connotation, implying a lack of control, as in “An unattended gun puts lives at risk.” Risk is everywhere and can be an opportunity or a threat. Although an effective risk management system cannot provide absolute assurance that events such as the current unsettled market situation will not occur, it can, as the least, lend confidence that the key risks will be identified and dealt with timely.

As a first step, understanding the structure and dimensions of ideal risk management can support common understanding and effective implementation by management and an adequate fraud risk assessment effort by CFE’s and other assurance professionals. Management must understand the key vulnerabilities to the business model and establish risk expectations, which can then be incorporated into business practices. Likewise, CFE’s must understand and consider the context of those expectations in their periodic fraud risk assessments. A thorough management understanding of fraud risk also improves the quality of any subsequent investigation of financial irregularities as it creates a standard against which to compare management’s due diligence efforts. Although it may be difficult for your individual clients to identify ideal standards for risk management, addressing some fundamentals can help frame those ideals.

Regulatory, market, and fraud risks are common and familiar to CFE’s, who’re used to identifying these external events and asking “What if” questions: What if this process is not in compliance? What if a fraud were to occur as a result? Inside counsel and auditors often encourage management to address these types of risks immediately, which can result in operational silos dedicated to addressing a single significant fraud risk. However, these single events are only part of the picture. What about process efficiency risk, process design risk, system implementation risk, data integrity risk, skill-set risk, and the myriad other internal risks that, from the CFE’s informed perspective impact operations and fraud prevention?  In the end, a risk is only important if it affects achievement of strategic and business objectives. Both external and internal risks can be placed in the context of their impact on business objectives. The strategic and objective framework must be defined and understood if an organization is to gauge the impact of the risks confronting it. The simplest way to define this framework is to start with the strategy and identify who is accountable for its parts. The framework is further defined as interviews with senior management reveal its objectives and accountability. The process continues until the framework has been constructively defined down to a relevant level for any external or internal risk. The relevance is determined based on the fraud risk’s ability to impact key elements of the framework. The framework provides a formal structure for ensuring strategic achievement.

Fraud risk management requires adequate identification of general risks and an awareness of existing vulnerabilities. Failure to do so can have dire consequences as the ever increasing volume of recent fraud cases attest. A century ago, modern soldiers recognized that good weapons were important to survival. However, realizing the value of tanks and exploding shells was only one element of effective risk management. Another was assessing the quality of the armor tanks carried into battle. No general would order a tank advance, without adequate vehicle armor. An army with limited protection would avoid or delay battles while its vehicles were being adequately fitted. Likewise, as an organization pursues its objectives, it must understand its strengths and vulnerabilities. Organizations cannot charge into daily economic battles without both weapons for success and armor to manage their inherent risks. Historically, assurance professionals have operated in a black-and-white world – a control is either present or absent, effective or ineffective. Although this may work for compliance or financial reporting objectives, it doesn’t help management effectively improve governance, risk management, or overall fraud prevention. Recognizing that business operations mature over time requires critical anti-fraud controls to mature with them. So if operations and controls mature over time, how does an organization organize the current state of affairs to avoid fraud vulnerabilities?

It’s important for fraud prevention to evaluate how effectively current business processes are supporting the achievement of strategic and business objectives. This evaluation will provide insights into the overall maturity of the fraud prevention controls that are in place to manage key risks. If the objective is to attack, yet the process or control maturity shows insufficient strength, it’s likely that the risk appetite of the general exceeds that of his government and country. Risk becomes more manageable with a framework of key risks in the context of key objectives and process/control maturity.

Business process and control vulnerability to fraud can be measured by defining high-level management controls that illustrate what management is doing to achieve its strategic and business objectives. By this point organizations should understand the strategy and objectives and be aware of their people, process, and technology capabilities; but this alone does not provide an overall understanding of fraud control maturity. Because maturity implies sustainability, it’s important to concurrently understand just how capable or strong the systems of control are. One way to begin creating a control maturity perspective is to look at what management is currently doing to ensure it achieves its objectives.

  • Does management have formal fraud prevention objectives that are well-written and communicated?
  • Is accountability clearly established?
  • Have metrics been set to measure the progress of those who are accountable?
  • Is existing reporting capable of illustrating the metric?
  • Are the information and communication channels adequate?
  • Does the tone at the top champion ethical behavior?

Frank answers to these types of simple questions help determine whether the CFE’s client organization is closer to the top, middle, or low levels of management fraud control maturity. This determination can help the organization identify gaps between its current level of maturity and the desired level so that actions can be prioritized to address the largest gaps. The answers to these questions can also help determine how formally objective achievement is being managed. They also provide a window into process capabilities and indicate the degree to which these capabilities are aligned with objective achievement. Informal alignment can create vulnerabilities. Management fraud control maturity is by no means the ultimate tool, but it provides a bridge in assessing risk management vulnerabilities.

All CFE’s have a role in educating senior management and the board (if there is one) about effective fraud risk management and irregularity prevention. Risk management means many things to almost everyone, yet communicating a few basic principles to clients will help CFE’s not only be successful but will provide the foundation for a program of robust fraud risk assessment. These principles help define a framework for valuing risk, assessing vulnerabilities, and determining the necessary steps for improving management fraud control maturity. Taken together, they can help any client organization improve the management of its overall risk and fraud prevention program.

Leave a Reply