Key Principles in Building Operational Resilience

December 2, 2020

  • Resilience must be built into an organization’s culture and include how the company operates both internally and across the extended third-party ecosystem.
  • Key principles for building operational resilience include: prioritize important business services; implement an effective business continuity management system; build ownership across the organization; integrate resilience and risk management; and drive resilience across third parties.


It’s hard to find an organization not impacted by the COVID pandemic or other recent disruptions - whether natural, man-made, cyber or a combination of several. Impacts from these events have resulted in employee health and safety issues, supply chain disruption, physical damage, loss of customers, reputational damage and increases in the cost of doing business - and the financial impacts have been astronomical.


Of all the disruptions in 2020 so far, the pandemic has impacted the most people, geographies and industries, including hospitality, travel, transportation, healthcare and retail. Opportunistic cyber breaches have also increased in 2020, impacting the safety, security and business value of organizations of all sizes, in all industries and locations.


Operational resilience has become a regulatory, corporate and board-level topic within many organizations due to the liability and loss they have experienced and that has been inflicted on economies worldwide. The nature, frequency and magnitude of disruptions have caused organizations to evaluate their abilities to properly identify threats, analyze the risk and implement plans to avoid or recover from them. With the increasing frequency of disruptive events, it’s impractical to rely on recovery alone.


Resources are spread thin even with one disruption, let alone concurrent events that tax the resilience team and the rest of the organization.



Operational resilience

Operational resilience is the ability of an organization to absorb changes and adapt in an evolving environment so it can deliver on its objectives, survive and prosper. Operational resilience includes, but is more than, business recovery; it’s a change in mindset, culture and approach that drives the implementation of resilient measures and practices throughout and by the business.


Five key principles for building operational resilience include:


  • Prioritize important business services
  • Implement an effective business continuity management system
  • Build ownership across the organization
  • Integrate resilience and risk management
  • Drive resilience across third parties


Prioritize important business services

Every organization has a core mission and strategic objectives, and the products and services it provides - whether online banking, emergency surgery or on-time flights - constitute an important part of this. The organization has to assume that at some point the ability to provide these products or services will be interrupted.


A key question is how long the organization can tolerate a disruption before the impact becomes intolerable. Intolerable impacts could include loss of a certain number of customers or missed transactions or a day’s worth of late flights. It’s up to each organization to determine its impact tolerance.


To reduce intolerable impacts, the products and services most critical to the ongoing viability of the organization must be made resilient. Not everything can be made resilient at once; therefore, it’s critical not only to prioritize but also to focus on the products and services the organization provides to customers, as well as what makes up these products and services - the supporting business processes, systems, people, assets, data and locations.



Implement an effective business continuity management system

An effective business continuity management system (BCMS) is a vital part of the strategy to build operational resilience. A BCMS consists of a business continuity management (BCM) program, automated tools, human resources and a reporting structure. A BCM program includes business continuity planning (BCP) and IT disaster recovery (ITDR); incident management, which is the routine handling of small, business-as-usual events before they become crises; and crisis management, which is the art and science of dealing with actual crisis events.


Even though BCP, ITDR, incident management and crisis management are the most common components of an organization’s BCM program, they are often disconnected and performed by separate teams with different tools, objectives and approaches. Disruptions and crises result in enough damage by themselves, but the disconnected state of these teams can add to the risk, reduce speed to respond and result in more negative impacts.


Integrating BCM functions builds operational resilience by better aligning the organizations that deal with disruptions, using approaches that are more fluid, practical, actionable and tested - and reduce intolerable impact to the organization.



Build ownership across the organization

Building operational resilience must no longer only be the sole responsibility of the BCM program, but instead should be owned across the business - by each unit and department, including IT, sales, public relations and more. Building operational resilience may start with the BCM program but it won’t thrive without proactive participation across the business in building operational resilience into the organization’s culture, processes, systems and practices.


A critical component is ownership of operational resilience at the executive level. Executive ownership, such as by the chief operating officer (COO) or chief information officer (CIO), provides the importance, sponsorship and visibility to make and sustain progress against other business priorities.


The COO's ownership shows that operational resilience is owned by the business units, and it becomes a strategic objective directly tied to the organization’s operating results.



Integrate resilience and risk management

Risks that threaten an organization's operational resilience come in many forms - health crises, cyber threats, operational events and supply chain disruptions. In fact, risks impacting an organization can often cause a domino effect. For example, weak security controls in a third party may result in a cyber breach to the engaging organization. The breach may result in an exposure of customer data (a compliance violation) and result in a disruption of systems that requires IT disaster recovery. The interconnected nature of risks illustrated in this example demonstrates that risk management must be integrated across the organization. Operational resilience must be closely tied in - especially aligning risk appetite, risk tolerance and a risk profile.


A challenge to this premise is that risk management is typically performed by separate functions across the organization, including third-party governance, IT, internal audit, operational risk and business resilience functions. This approach, which has likely grown up over time, may put the spotlight on individual risks, but where C-suite executives and boards are asking frequently about the status of strategic risks, it makes rolling up those risks and reporting them at high levels very difficult.


All the functions performing separate risk management activities should align, if not organizationally, then at least using the same methodologies, risk tolerances and automated toolsets, so the results, reporting, dashboarding and monitoring of key risk indicators are more instantaneous and accurate when rolled up as strategic risks for executives. This type of risk management discipline will only strengthen the ability to build operational resilience.



Drive resilience across third parties

Third parties are an extension of the engaging organization and in some cases perform very critical functions for them. Internal and third-party organizations are often very closely intertwined in the delivery of products and services, and if one is disrupted, the other may be impacted too. Therefore, it’s vital to ensure that third-party ecosystems, supply chains and other external partnerships are as resilient as the engaging organization. Myriad issues must be considered as organizations work to build operational resilience with individual third parties and across their unique third-party ecosystems.


Third-party ecosystems are becoming more complex and specialized. For example, organizations may become dependent on a small number of outsourced or third-party service providers who are very difficult or impossible to substitute, which could, over time, give rise to systemic concentration risks. A major disruption, outage or failure at one of these service providers could create a single point of failure with potential adverse consequences for financial stability. This can be especially true of cloud providers. In addition, sub-outsourcing to a third party’s third parties (nth parties) can amplify certain risks in outsourcing arrangements, such as data security, and limit an organization’s ability to manage them - particularly where large, complex chains of service providers are involved.


Third-party resilience is complicated to achieve because the control and responsibility lie with the third party. However, there are ways to build toward operational resilience of third parties. For example, during onboarding of a third party, service-level agreements and clauses can be included in contracts that stipulate the third party will take steps such as maintaining and testing their recovery plans. These agreements should cover how the third party will maintain operational resilience under normal conditions and in the event of a disruption. Engaging organizations can also monitor the third party on an ongoing basis through performance and resilience metrics, perform joint tests of resilience measures and normalize procedures to align the third party's resilience.


Third-party resilience is best achieved through a combination of upfront agreements and ongoing arrangements that build resilience between the engaging organization and the third party together.




Resilience must be built into the organization’s very fabric - from its culture to how the company operates both internally and across the extended third-party ecosystem. Five key principles for building operational resilience include: prioritize important business services, implement an effective business continuity management system, build ownership across the organization, integrate resilience and risk management, and drive resilience across third parties.

Patrick Potter
Patrick Potter | RSA
Patrick has over 30 years experience leading risk management, operational resilience, compliance, internal audit, third-party management, strategic planning and process improvement in both practitioner and consulting roles. He has developed a unique perspective working with analysts, partners and customers spanning many industries including financial services, healthcare, government, energy, education and travel/hospitality.

Patrick is a subject matter expert for RSA, where he provides strategic input into the development and marketing of the Archer Suite and works with customers on best practices.