Working In Uncertainty

Research services from Matthew Leitch

Is your organization one of those that sometimes sponsors research? Maybe it's for marketing purposes, or to serve members, or just to find out useful things that give you an advantage. Or perhaps your organization does the research without outside help, but it's not something you do often.

Tricky isn't it? If you want to do something a step beyond salary surveys and economic outlooks then dreaming up, executing, and writing about research is difficult. It's all too easy to end up with something too academic or, conversely, transparently self-serving and without credibility. Think of all those 'research' pieces you've heard of where the main goal was to justify a press release with a headline like "56% of organizations do not have a strategy for X" where X can be just about anything.

In contrast, a study with a big idea in it that produces clear cut results that are interesting and useful to people you care about can do a great deal for you.

I've been doing surveys and other studies of my own for over a decade and now offer this as a commercial service.

Studies in the pipeline that you could support or sponsor

Here are some of the study ideas I have been developing. Would one of these be helpful to you? Could you help recruit survey participants, publicize results, or provide some funding in return for something you want?

Study 1: What do people want their risk manager to do?

This study tells prospective employers to imagine they are recruiting a 'risk manager' and asks which of several approaches proposed by the candidate they would prefer. It then asks the employer to imagine that the risk manager has been recruited and is doing well. The time has come to get the risk manager more involved with important management issues. Again, the employer is asked which of several proposed approaches would be preferred.

The results of this survey will give risk managers strong pointers as to what they can focus on to get a job and succeed in it.

Study 2: Allocation of Board time

This study recognizes that a board of directors has limited time, so any changes to improve their handling of risk/uncertainty need to compete with alternatives. How does reviewing a risk register compare to other, more natural alternatives? This survey gives respondents a fixed amount of board time and asks them to allocate it over a set of alternative ways to improve board performance. It also asks people to think about how much better the board will perform with various mixes of activities.

I expect this study to reveal interesting insights into what most people think that conflict with current guidance on how to manage risk in government, in charities, and in business. Past surveys suggest that most people prefer much more integrated, natural approaches but some people worry that they will take too long. This will be the first study to ask people to think about use of time as well as effectiveness.

The results should be interesting to directors, risk managers, and anyone else with an interest in improving governance and risk management.

Study 3: Judgements about economic value

Successful currency speculators get more money than successful nurses. Is that fair? Is that good for our economy? It seems obvious that some activities are more useful than others, but what makes people think some jobs and some companies more useful than others?

This study asks people to imagine that they are in government and personally allocating loans to a number of small companies to help them expand. The companies are identical in size and financial prospects. They differ only in their activities, with some being blatantly more valuable to society than others.

It is likely that most respondents will allocate money unequally, aiming to favour companies whose activities they would like to encourage. This will reveal preferences and begin to shed light on what people value and would like to encourage in our economy. A free text field will invite respondents to explain their choices in as much or as little detail as they choose.

I predict that the results will show clearly that most people think there is more to the economy than money.

Study 4: Social value of sports

It sometimes seems that we in the UK are unreservedly supportive of all sports. But, leaving aside the direct entertainment value of watching professionals perform, do we see all sport as equally valuable to society? How does middle distance running compare to show jumping? One is cheaper to participate in, consumes less resources, provides a healthy workout, and rarely leads to serious injury.

This survey will probe the reasons why we might consider some sports more worthwhile than others. It will simply list factors that might be relevant to a government wishing to allocate grants to sporting bodies to increase participation. Respondents will be asked how relevant, if at all, they think each factor is.

The results will probably show that most people would wish to discriminate and that the factors they favour do not always point to the highest profile sports in the UK.

Study 5: Board conversations involving risk and uncertainty

For risk management to have a powerful impact it needs to influence conversations between powerful people about important decisions. Do we know what we would like those conversations to be like?

This survey will explore in detail what people think a good conversation about an important decision under uncertainty should be like. Respondents will be given realistic scenarios within business conversations and asked to rate alternative responses to those scenarios.

As with other surveys of this type that I have done, responses are likely to show some good sense about what the conversations should be like, but the most popular views may be different from familiar recommendations in risk management guidance.

Study 6: Framing effect of Risk Listing language

Recent analysis of Risk Listing language and techniques has strongly suggested that the language 'frames' Risk Listing techniques in a way that makes them seem sensible. The language of Risk Listing tends to make 'risks' sound like pre-existing physical objects (like potatoes) and this may make it seem more sensible to put them through the Risk Listing process (like potatoes going through a cleaning and sorting machine). Most of the details of Risk Listing techniques fit this idea.

This study would be a direct test of the framing hypothesis. Respondents would be asked to consider hypothetical decisions and rate alternative approaches to them according to how sensible they seem. The competing approaches will capture aspects of Risk Listing decision logic and conventional decision theory.

This is likely to show a general preference for the conventional logic of decision-making, but to test the influence of framing words some respondents will be exposed to Risk Listing language while others will not. This Risk Listing language, when included, will be within the instructions, the scenario descriptions, and the descriptions of Risk Listing techniques.

If the hypothesis is correct, more people will think Risk Listing ideas are sensible when Risk Listing language is used.

Study 7: Alternative risk management policies

Many corporate risk management policies today – particularly in the public sector – include Risk Listing language and envisage that all risk management will be done though risk registers. Is that the true preference of those who approved such policies?

This study will offer respondents alternative wordings for critical paragraphs in a hypothetical but typical risk management policies and ask which they prefer, if either, and to what extent. In each case the comparison will be between words that make Risk Listing the only approach and words that are open to more alternative ways to manage risk.

This could be a significant step in reforming risk management if it reassures individuals who want to switch to a more open policy that others are likely to agree with their suggestion.

A completed survey for ACCA

ACCA were looking for an idea for research that somehow linked risk, behaviour, ethics, and governance. I suggested the survey that we then did. It focused on the way accountants help their colleagues manage risk, but also collected information and views about dysfunctional behaviours that were a problem. The survey was turned into two reports, one written by me and one written by ACCA, and a website giving ACCA members the opportunity to learn more about the techniques mentioned in the survey. I was also able to help by researching and writing some short case studies and some interviews were recorded on video.

The report written by me: "The reality of risk"

The response written by ACCA: "The rules of risk"

An interview with me, Matthew Leitch, quite closely based on the research:



An interview with Paul Moxey, also discussing the research and how excited he is by it:



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Company: The Ridgeway Expertise Company Ltd, registered in England, no. 04931400.

Registered office: 29 Ridgeway, KT19 8LD, United Kingdom.

Words © 2011 Matthew Leitch