Case Studies

ISRM online conference: round-up

by Mark Rowe

The three-day Institute of Strategic Risk Management (ISRM) online conference this week was rather a triumph, writes Mark Rowe, who has digested the three days and now rounds up.

Inevitably after any conference – the ISRM’s was via Zoom for two hours in the middle (GMT) of Monday to Wednesday – each attender will have their own stand-out memories. That’s one of the glories of humanity, that two or 200 people can experience the same thing and come away with differing opinions and recall and pick out different things.

Of the dozen speakers, Stanley McChrystal sticks in the mind the most, and the opening of his 20 minute or so talk the most. Briefly to recap; this retired four-star US general, now CEO of a consultancy was Commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) in 2009, and is the author of such works as Team of Teams. He set the start of his talk on March 23, 1994. “It was a spring afternoon,” he recalled, and I struggled to think what was important about that time; what wars were going on?

McChrystal recalled he was a lieutenant-colonel in North Carolina, commanding a parachute battalion of 600 paratroopers; preparing for a jump that day, getting ready at the airfield. Above, an F16 fighter jet and a C130 cargo aircraft had a mid-air collision. The F16 pilot was able to bail out; and survived; but the wreckage went down to the airfield, and hit a parked aircraft, and created a fireball, and more debris, that went through those paratroopers, preparing. “As you can imagine, it was devastating.”

Of McChrystal’s men, more than 40 were badly injured (‘most with horrific burns’), and 21 paratroopers killed. A crisis indeed. As the battalion commander, as McChrystal recalled to the worldwide ISRM audience, he saw people walking around dazed; a medical evacuation going on at speed; ‘and we were starting to identify and deal with the dead. I had a crisis; and I had a problem.”

McChrystal proceeded to explain the difference between the two. The problem – those dead and injured paratroopers – was already being solved, and as McChrystal said: “I couldn’t work on that, I wasn’t a medical person.” Badly-burned patients were already going to hospital.

McChrystal had a much bigger crisis, that was not evident in those first few minutes, when response was visceral. He had lost 10 per cent of his battalion, killed or wounded, and the rest of the battalion was stunned – ‘I mean, this was a sunny morning’ – and such bad things were not supposed to happen, not at Fort Bragg, the heart of the American military. People had lost room-mates, comrades, husbands and fathers. Families and fellow soldiers would have to come to terms with bereavement, and more immediately, find out who was alive and well and not.

In three weeks, McChrystal’s battalion was due to become ‘number one readiness’ for the 82nd Division. The question for McChrystal was; would his unit be able to do that? “And that was my role. And pretty quickly it became clear to me that my role was to give stability to the organisation, identify that this crisis was, this organisation could lose confidence, cohesion, and the ability to do its job for a significant period of time.”

On reflection, that might sound callous; except that in any number of cases – after a natural or man-made disaster – the same problem-crisis that McChrystal separated apply; that while acknowledging and dealing respectfully with human loss, it is also necessary to scan the horizon for what still has to be done.

McChrystal had been in command for about a year and the battalion had just gone through extensive training, to be ready for its lead role. While never expecting such an accident, the reality was that the crisis required what the unit had been preparing for; it had been building cohesion, to respond to the things associated with combat.

McChrystal now drew conclusions from his career; ‘you have problems and you have crises’. Problems are things you can work through; crises can kill you, or your organisation, ‘and you have to tell the two apart’. As an aside, it felt significant that McChrystal regularly used the word ‘reality’; the leader, it’s evident, cannot hide or evade the facts. Nor, as McChrystal went on, you cannot say everything is a crisis; ‘your credibility goes down’.

Digest of day one of the ISRM conference:

Day two:

Day three:

The three days ranged over many of the things that arose from McChrystal’s 1994 story, and the rest of his talk: what are the risks and vulnerabilities; what ought leadership to look like in a crisis – most obviously, during the Covid-19 pandemic. But it was striking that Dr David Rubens, pictured, conference chair and ISRM founder in London, sought to focus on what is the next crisis; because crises are sure to come, because even before Covid the world faced climate change; resource depletion, extreme weather; terrorism; organised crime.

A word on those letters in ISRM. First, the International. A final day speaker, the consultant Marcus Oxley, spoke of crisis as opportunity – to innovate to do things better in ways that wouldn’t be possible in normal times. This conference was a fine example. Consider that before 2020 the ISRM might have like any other industry body arranged a physical gathering in a city. Speakers would fly in, at cost (in money and carbon miles). Add venue hire, food, and the day or two would cost a five-figure sum. Instead, the conference cost whatever Zoom costs. Hundreds of people at a time logged in, from innumerable countries, people who would not have dreamed or afforded travel to a physical event.

The ISRM, also through its ‘camp fire’ regular online meetings, like a ‘town hall’, is also meeting its purpose. Before launching the Institute early in 2019 Dr David Rubens spoke to me of the potential member being in Venezuela or Vietnam, such a a factory manager. And, the ISRM was a place for such practitioners, policy-makers (such as a city mayor or whoever in their office is tasked with resilience) and academics to discuss strategic risk management – whether you term it resilience (or presilience, a word of day three speaker Dr Gav Schneider, who chairs the ISRM Australian chapter) or crisis or disaster management.

To return to McChrystal’s story. The tactical was the necessary caring for the hurt and dead. Someone has to do the Strategic, the S in the ISRM, the looking to the horizon, thinking beyond whatever is the bad thing – flood, fire, act of terror.

So many ideas arose from the three days. To take one; that resilience may be pitted against efficiency. Consider that lean supply chains are valued as economically efficient – except that they may be vulnerable, to a dock strike, act of terror, hurricane, pandemic.

Likewise, to take the subject of David Rubens’ doctorate taken through the University of Portsmouth; that the very inter-connectedness of modern life, the computer networks, the ATM machines, your metadata, credit card details stored on servers in the cloud, IP networks controlling traffic lights, power stations and railway signals – wonderfully complex, but a failure – whether due to terrorist sabotage or a solar flare or other power outage – can lead to cascading failure. No cash out of ATMs, no food delivered to shops, no internet … how resilient would a country, city, continent be? The paradox, then, is that the very tech that brought ISRM together – free to attend, by the way! – in a useful and life-affirming conference is also a known source of vulnerability.

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