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Strategic risks for a scientific research organisation


This case study describes a series of workshops to identify the main strategic opportunities and threats for a scientific research establishment. The organisation is a niche institute that is a world leader in its chosen fields. The workshops formed part of an extended strategic planning process.

Because of the strategic focus of the workshops, a particular effort was made to identify opportunities as well as threats.

Risk assessment workshops


The workshops formed part of a broader risk management process aligned with the standard ISO 31000 Risk management – Principles and guidelines and the organisation’s own draft risk management framework, outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The risk management process

The context stage was completed prior to the workshops.

Preliminary risk identification

Managers were asked to complete questionnaires before the workshop, to elicit their thoughts on:

  • The main external factors and changes that might impact on the organisation over the next five years
  • The organisation’s strengths and weaknesses
  • The most important opportunities and threats confronting the organisation as a whole over the next five years
  • The most important opportunities and threats in that part of the organisation in which the respondent worked.

Table 1 provides a summary of the responses.

Table 1: Initial questionnaire responses


Number of individual items

External factors










The detailed responses were aggregated and analysed, to develop an initial register containing 20 opportunities and 32 threats, the 'headline risks'. This formed an important starting point for the workshops.

Workshop structure

A series of workshops was held over three days. Each had a specific focus, although there were inevitable overlaps. The topics covered were:

  • Business processes
  • Business strategy
  • Collaboration and joint ventures
  • Facilities and infrastructure
  • Field operations
  • Intellectual property
  • Laboratory operations
  • Management processes
  • Regulatory and compliance requirements
  • Research
  • Skills
  • Stakeholders
  • Succession planning.

Participants in the workshops came from across the organisation. Not all people attended all sessions – participants self-selected their attendance at sessions where they had an interest or could add value. The levels of participation and contribution were excellent.

Risk assessment process

The workshops addressed the three central boxes in Figure 1: identify, analyse and evaluate the risks. Each workshop followed these steps:

  • The opportunities and threats in the draft register that were relevant to the workshop topic were reviewed, the descriptions were revised and the main controls currently in place were noted
  • Opportunities and threats that were not relevant, or that duplicated other items, were omitted from the register and ‘parked’ for future reference
  • New opportunities and threats that arose in discussion were added as appropriate
  • The impacts of each opportunity and threat were assessed in terms of the criteria in Table 2 (linked to the organisation’s corporate objectives) and rated using the organisation’s agreed risk management scales; the likelihood of the assessed level of impact arising was rated using the agreed scales
  • The combined impact and likelihood ratings generated a level of risk.
Table 2: Criteria for assessing impacts




Financial loss includes capital and revenue losses and additional operating expenses, as well as lost opportunities to add economic value, or their present value equivalents

Core capabilities

This allows capabilities to be assessed more directly and without having to evaluate consequences in financial terms

This covers capabilities in all aspects of the business, including science, operational and support areas; in this scale, processes and systems include personnel and organisational capabilities as well as technical aspects

Assets include personal, organisational, intellectual and physical assets

Legal and compliance

Legal and compliance includes actual or threatened legal actions or challenges


Safety includes both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) impacts on staff, contractors and the public


Environment covers inappropriate releases of material and breaches of relevant regulations

Reputation and image

This covers reputation and image in its widest sense, including insurance effects and loss of shareholder or community support


This reflects the organisation’s objective of being a good employer

Selected senior managers further reviewed the resulting opportunity and threat register after the completion of the workshops.

Workshop outcomes

The workshops generated nine strategic opportunities and 41 strategic threats. Three risks that required additional discussion were set aside for rating after the workshops, and a further 32 items were discussed but omitted subsequently from the register on the grounds of duplication or lack of strategic relevance.

Generally risks were rated conservatively, i.e. the risk ratings based on the corporate scales sometimes turned out higher than seemed credible. There were several reasons for this:

  • Participants were not familiar with the risk assessment process, and despite the efforts of the facilitator they adopted a conservative and sometimes a ‘worst-case’ approach, often not taking current controls fully into account
  • The organisation’s consequences rating scales were relatively conservative, particularly the financial scale
  • The organisation’s priority-setting matrix (that combined consequence and likelihood ratings to derive a level of risk) was also slightly conservative, with over one third of the cells leading to either Extreme or High outcomes.

Selected strategic opportunities are shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Selected strategic opportunities


Level of risk

Opportunities in … for additional funding to expand our scientific activities and raise our profile


Opportunity to enhance links with other national and international universities and research centres, leading to better research outcomes and increased funding for postgraduate research students


Opportunity to change focus from cost recovery and external contract commitments towards basic and strategic research


Industry-sponsored work provides funding that allows us to invest to secure our future


Opportunity to increase our communication and name-branding to raise our profile with non-Government stakeholders


Increased interest from stakeholders in larger multi-disciplinary projects with longer timelines and more general outcomes provides opportunities to increase our profile and reputation


Innovation capabilities: opportunity to exploit our international leadership in the development and deployment of new technologies


Opportunity to make better use of our data, including long-term data sets


Next steps

Managers planned to exploit the involvement and enthusiasm that was exhibited in the risk assessment process. The greatest value was likely to come from a focus on treatment options for the major opportunities and threats, some of which overlapped with activities or initiatives already underway in the organisation.

A specific initiative was the identification of productive ‘focus areas’ that incorporated related opportunities and threats. Task groups were created to ‘own’ each focus area and prepare a business case for improvement actions. They were to:

  • Develop options and task requirements, taking account of the cost-effectiveness of treating more than one risk with a single treatment activity
  • Identify synergies with actions already in progress
  • Analyse net benefits and costs for the organisation
  • Recommend preferred options.

Two of the prospective focus areas that were identified during the workshops are noted in Table 4.

Table 4: Prospective focus areas


Key questions


How can we maximise the value of our capabilities through the active pursuit of collaboration opportunities?


Who are our primary stakeholders for whom our ‘brand’ is important? How can we enhance the value and recognition of the brand for each stakeholder group?


When people think about ‘risk’, they tend to think about threats first, events or circumstances that might hinder the achievement of objectives. However, if a risk assessment has a strategic purpose, as it did in this case, it is also important to identify opportunities, events or circumstances in which the achievement of objectives might be enhanced.

This required additional effort in several areas.

  • The initial briefing set the scene and the strategic context, emphasising the fact that there was scope for outcomes to exceed current plans, the need for identifying potential improvements and the advantages for the organisation in doing so in this kind of assessment.
  • The initial information collection encouraged thinking about uncertain outcomes that might be better than expected. We used examples in our questionnaires to demonstrate how risks should be worded – generally in the form [something happens] that leads to [an impact on objectives] – and we provided examples of both threats and opportunities.
  • The workshop facilitation process focused on eliciting opportunities as well as threats, with specific prompts for circumstances in which objectives might be enhanced. Participants were encouraged explicitly to think about potential benefits for the organisation as well as potential problems.
  • Aligning the assessment workshops with strategic planning processes clearly assisted in creating a mind-set for the participants in which they were more aware of and attuned to identifying opportunities.

For this research organisation, several aspects of the risk management work were very encouraging:

  • Responses to the initial questionnaire were detailed and thoughtful, and submitted by a wide spread of personnel across all parts of the organisation
  • There was excellent attendance at the workshops, and very good levels of interaction, contribution and involvement
  • The senior executive team demonstrated strong commitment and support for the process and participated actively in the workshops.

There is no doubt that we were working with a dedicated group of people with strong leaders. Everyone saw this series of workshops as an important component of a strategic planning process that would provide an opportunity to take the initiative, take control of their own destinies and forge a successful future for the organisation. They participated enthusiastically, and the high quality of the outcomes reflected this.