This week in history - volcanos, hurricanes, and the risk of Black Swans

Chris McClean

Pouring over endless details of risks, regulations, taxonomies, and technologies can sometimes give us a narrow view of the world, so it seems worthwhile to take a minute to mark the 125th anniversary of the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa this week. For those of us that want to think big but can’t remember that far back, this week is also the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating sweep across a wide stretch of the US Gulf Coast.

By now, I expect that most of you have read or are familiar with the 2007 book, The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which argues that these kinds of unpredictable, outlying occurrences are the ones that really shape businesses, countries, economies, and people. Taleb argues that although these “Black Swan” events are almost completely unforeseeable, we mistakenly try to explain the circumstances at the time and make predictions about similar events in the future.

In my ERM work with clients, and especially in the context of research I’ve been doing with my colleague Stephanie Balaouras on business continuity and resiliency, questions come up about how to plan for catastrophes... and they’re good questions. Were the CardSystems or TJX data breaches foreseeable? What about the Societe General debacle or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami? What’s next? Should these types of events be included in our risk assessments?

We’d like to get your opinion on these and other risks that may be on the very edge of the statistical tail. At what point do they belong in your risk register?

Of course, it’s possible to define mitigating controls for crises, disasters, or incidents without knowing for sure what they’re going to look like. That’s one of the hallmarks of a good crisis management plan. And that’s an important point, because trying to predict the next unforeseeable event can be a real challenge sometimes.