Will The Real Risk Expert Please Stand Up

It appears we’re living in a world where everyone is an expert in one thing or another, but when it comes to risk management and travel safety, that could be a dangerous thing. How is an expert defined? Well, if you take the 10,000 hour rule referred to by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers, 10,000 hours is the amount of time a person needs to apply to a specific subject or skill in order to achieve “expert” status. That would mean that most people could claim to be experts after about 5 years. (Where Gladwell has used 3 hours per day for 10 years to calculate his 10,000 hours, I have made the assumption that most professional people apply at least 8 hours per working day to their field of specialisation.) This seems to be a meteoric rise from knowing little or nothing to becoming an “expert”.

Compare this to the medical profession where doctors study for 7 years just to qualify. After which, they are junior doctors for a number of years, before specialising, and only then do they really learn their chosen field of medicine. It takes many more years before they would ever be considered experts. In fact many genuine medical experts refuse to use that term when describing themselves.

So, why is it that within the risk management industry so many people are considered experts? Granted, there are a lot of genuine and respected practitioners, but there’s also an abundance of those who claim levels of “expertise” they simply can’t justify.

Using Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition, “expert” is defined as: “Having or showing a special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught, or what you have experienced.” Sounds simple enough. But when we are dealing with the safety of people, surely we need to drill a little deeper. Let’s take the key words of that definition and break them down.

Special Skill – Many of the skills required for effective risk management and overseas safety have traditionally been the preserve of ex-military, emergency services or intelligence agency types. (Although this is now changing). The reason for this is that in order for those working in these professions to do their job, they need to be trained in special skills. These skills are honed relentlessly until they become second nature and they can quite literally perform them in their sleep. However, that’s not to say that this is an exclusive club and that ex-services personnel make the best risk managers, in many cases they don’t.

Knowledge – Knowledge is available to anyone prepared to learn and there are some incredible academics who focus on the subject of risk management who haven’t spent a single day in the military, emergency or intelligence services. They have a view on the subject that is untainted by politics, protocol or tradition and therefore their knowledge is often more balanced, objective and accurate. They will dedicate their entire life to their chosen field of expertise and certainly more than Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. In most cases their knowledge is invaluable and highly effective in managing risk. What they often lack, however, is on the ground experience. (See below)

Been Taught – A little knowledge is dangerous and there are right and wrong ways to learn, especially when people are at risk. Learning needs to be specific to the field of risk and not be a by-product of a larger learning programme. The theatre of risk management is continually evolving and would-be experts need to evolve with it and adapt their methods in accordance to the changing landscape. It’s not acceptable, or appropriate to rely entirely on historical knowledge of something you may have done many years ago. Therefore there’s a cost in both time and money. Genuine experts are repeatedly investing in their skills and building their knowledge.

Experienced – Experience comes from exposure to situations, events or locations. Experience can’t be taught, it has to be gained and this is where many so called “experts” come unstuck. They simply haven’t had sufficient exposure to risk and therefore are not equipped to deal with situations they are unfamiliar with. Unless you deal with risk on a daily basis it’s very hard to gain sufficient experience in how to mitigate it effectively. This is where those who have worked in professions where risk is part of their normal every day life have an advantage. They are hardwired to it because they have lived with it, day in, day out.

In reality, risk management and travel safety expertise consists of many facets, none of which are going to be gained overnight. We also know that experts in any field aren’t cheap and their expertise comes at a cost. This is why some organisations, fall into the trap of going for the cheapest option. Partly because they don’t have the budget to pay for genuine expertise, or because they simply need to tick a box. Yet these are often the organisations who need the services of experts more than anyone, due to their areas of operation. When it comes to keeping people safe, lack of budget is not an acceptable excuse. If you can’t afford the appropriate level of expertise, you shouldn’t be operating in high risk areas.

So how do you know who’s a genuine expert and who’s playing at being one? After all, the former will be an asset to your organisation, the latter could be the most costly mistake you ever make.

If you are offered risk management solutions or training that is significantly cheaper than others in the same market, you have to question why. But that’s not to say that you should go with the most expensive option either. Ask the right questions. For example; if someone is trying to sell you Kidnap Avoidance & Hostage Survival training, ask them how many hostage situations they have actually dealt with. If their answer isn’t in the high 100’s, you’re not dealing with an expert. Equally, you don’t want someone from a humanitarian or development background delivering your field first aid training, that’s not their area of expertise. You want a doctor, paramedic or EMT with remote-region experience to deliver it.

The fact is that risk management is a very complex area and requires many different skills. Therefore, it’s very difficult for any individual to gain expertise across the board. Experts are people highly skilled in their areas of specialism and not a jack of all trades. The concern is that the pseudo experts will devalue the credibility of the genuine ones, impacting the reputation of the entire risk management/travel safety community and will ultimately put lives at risk.

Lloyd Figgins is the CEO of LFL Global Risk Mitigation and the author of Looking for Lemons – A Travel Survival Guide.