Proactive Risk Management and COVID-19: An Expert Q&A

Proactive Risk Management
April 28, 2020

If you follow our blog, you probably noticed that we published posts that aim to help you better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and future crises.

We also made new features, templates and configuration packages available free of charge to support our customers during these challenging times.

One of these new solutions is a Bowtie template from CGE Risk Management Solutions. In February, Wolters Kluwer announced that it had completed the acquisition of CGE. The company will be part of the same EHS/ORM group that includes Enablon and eVision.

I spoke recently with Bob van Riek, Head of Product Management at CGE, about risk management practices in the context of COVID-19.

Here’s what Bob had to say.

Let’s start with a hot topic that many risk professionals are debating: is COVID-19 a Black Swan, yes or no?

Bob: I discussed this topic with Jop Groeneweg, professor of Healthcare at TU Delft (Delft University of Technology). Jop is also a researcher at Leiden University and at TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research).

First let’s look at the characteristics of a Black Swan as formulated by Nassim Taleb who came up with the concept. Then, let’s see if COVID-19 meets the criteria. The answers (in blue) are based on my discussions with Jop:

  • Extreme impact: The definition of this speaks for itself. Clearly the impacts on society and the global economy have been very severe. The answer is YES for this criterion.
  • Outlier: Nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Infectious diseases are not new. We knew they could happen, even as recently as 2002 (SARS), 2009 (H1N1 virus) and 2012 (MERS). The answer is NO for this criterion.
  • Retrospectivity: Human nature leads us to make explanations after the fact (rationalized by hindsight), but not prospectively. Some people had a prospective look. For example, Bill Gates talked about the next pandemic already in 2015 in a TED talk. But most people did not have this foresight and are now rationalizing in hindsight. The answer is both YES and NO.

So according to Taleb’s own criteria, COVID-19 is not a black swan. We had been warned about a potential pandemic. There were several assessments and analyses in which pandemics were indicated as a serious global risk. The fact that we did not address the risk effectively is a different matter, but no one can say this pandemic came unexpectedly out of nowhere like a black swan.

Also, the response to COVID-19 has been more thorough in countries that were affected by SARS and MERS, and we can see the effects. In short, not a black swan, despite the fact that we were not prepared for its impacts.

What type of assistance can CGE provide today to help organizations with their response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bob: One of CGE’s principles is to share knowledge about the barrier-based risk approach.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we built bowties, organized webinars and shared our own and our partners’ bowtie templates. In addition, we offer a bowtie trial period that allows companies to use our software with full functionality for 4 weeks.

A bowtie is very useful because it is visual, dynamic and considers points of failure of barriers. It shows barriers compartmentalized in time and space, and this applies to both preventative barriers that minimize the risk of an event from happening, and recovery barriers that minimize the impacts of an event that has happened.

Here’s the COVID-19 bowtie template (Click here for a free BowTieXP trial and to download the template):

The left side of the bowtie helps to prevent infection, while the right side of the bowtie helps to control, or recover from, the spread of infection inside a company. Of course the scope and construction of your bowtie analysis influence what is preventative and recovery.

Finally, we recognize that sometimes the best experts that companies can rely on are those who are in-house. That’s why our bowtie template can be used as a starting point and adapted based on an organization’s circumstances and input from its experts. Our bowtie is used as inspiration or a template to start creating your company-specific bowtie.

Looking at the CGE bowtie, I notice that escalation factors can be identified and displayed in the yellow boxes. Can you explain the concept of an escalation factor?

Bob: An escalation factor is something or a condition that can lead to a potential failure of a preventative or recovery barrier/control. Escalation factors are great to visualize potential points of failure in your risk planning.

In the case of COVID-19, you might have planned your risk response well, at least on paper, but a barrier can still fail due to resources being unavailable, bad response times, insufficient information, etc. Escalation factors are crucial to bowtie analysis.

A bowtie must be updated based on new information, especially in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic with medical research still ongoing. Escalation factors help to take into account new developments and show if any new weak spots are emerging in the barrier framework. They help to keep up with changes.

Here’s an example. We went from “Coronavirus can’t stay alive outside of the human body for long” to “It can stay alive on surfaces from hours to sometimes days”. This totally changes some of the barriers and their expected effectiveness.

Another example is when some sources said, “Coronavirus can’t spread via the air”, which influences your response. However, additional research showed that liquid droplets that include the virus can stay airborne for up to three hours. This changes your escalation factor, such as the operation of your ventilation system.

During our own bowtie analysis process, we had to include/exclude escalation factors multiple times based on new evidence being made available.

In general, companies are mostly worried about acute incidents, like an explosion or a worker falling from a ladder. But with COVID-19, the situation is constantly evolving, therefore a bowtie needs to be updated. And our templates make it easy to update bowties, including escalation factors.

In what ways do you think that the COVID-19 crisis may impact Risk Management programs in the future? What do you think will be the future impacts on processes, operating procedures, etc.?

Bob: Professor Groeneweg does not think highly of the learning ability of all companies. Not due to bad intentions or negligence, but due to the fact that humans are naturally inclined to focus more on short-term needs and what’s happening now, rather than future events and how to prevent them. We need to ask ourselves this question: will we be able to focus on the lessons we learned?

It is also interesting to see how the ‘Health’ component is suddenly rising in importance in HSE departments in dramatic fashion. A lot of safety professionals have probably been surprised by this in some form.

But this also presents an opportunity. By using better risk assessment practices, occupational health professionals and industrial hygienists can better identify, visualize and deepen the understanding of the risk scenarios and required measures or barriers. They can start monitoring the presence and performance of these measures in a proactive way, capture learnings and embed them in processes and future activities.

Moreover, whether it’s used for safety risks, health risk, or operational risks, a bowtie allows an organization to “use the same language” regarding barriers. In some way, a bowtie helps to break language and cultural barriers because it’s visual and it can be easily shared. It promotes one common language throughout all global sites.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally? How are you handling social distancing and working from home?

Bob: CGE is part of the Wolters Kluwer family, which means we benefitted from a very proactive and professional response. Even before the Dutch government announced some COVID-19 measures, Wolters Kluwer was already starting to implement work-at-home for employees. They didn’t wait for national governments to act. They were proactive since the beginning.

Working from home includes its own challenges. Balancing private life and work takes on a new meaning. During the first week, my family had to adjust, but now we are coping fine. We have a one-and-a-half-year-old boy running around and my wife is pregnant with our second child, so you probably imagine what that means. The usual support you get from grandparents, childcare, etc. is not there, so you have to adjust. Having said that, we are all healthy, so no reason to complain.

On a positive note, we get to see each other a lot and are exploring more digital ways of communicating with family and work colleagues! I have noticed that in a way, working remotely, we take more time to ask each other how we are feeling and doing. We seem to be conscious of the fact that we need to take care of each other and get through this together.

Also, we all have a role to play. Everybody should take responsibility to adhere to the measures issued by governments. I’ve been very strict from the start and haven’t seen relatives and friends for many weeks now. Some people were slow to react, but others took it seriously. I followed the news and I remember when cases were still affecting mainly China but there were signs that the pandemic was spreading to Italy. Right away I took measures and stop visiting relatives. It’s not about being afraid, it’s about taking responsibility and leading by example. And we all need to do more of that all the time!

That’s our Q&A with Bob van Riek from CGE. We hope that it gives you great ideas on how to improve your risk management practices.

Check out also our post on three companies and how they’re responding to COVID-19, and the post from Taylor Allis, our VP of Product and Marketing, about the pandemic’s impacts on risk programs.

We also published other Q&A posts with members of our Product Team on specific areas of response and preparedness to COVID-19:



Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader - Wolters Kluwer | Enablon