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Understanding the COSO Frameworks

February 11, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Whether you are a fan of the COSO ERM and Internal Control frameworks or not, a paper just released by COSO is worth reading and thinking about.

The intent of the two authors (my good friend Jim DeLoach of Protiviti and Jeff Thomson of the Institute of Management Accountants) is to explain how the COSO frameworks fit within and enhance the operation’s processes for directing and managing the organization. In their words:

“Our purpose in writing this paper is to relate the COSO frameworks to an overall business model and describe how the key elements of each framework contribute to an organization’s long-term success.”

My intent in this post is not to quibble with some of the concepts and language with which I disagree (such as their portrayal of risk appetite), but to highlight some of the sections I really like (with occasional comments) and encourage you to read the entire paper.

For those of you who prefer the ISO 31000:2009 global risk management standard (and I am among their number), the paper is worth reading because it stimulates thinking about the role of risk management in setting strategy and thereafter optimizing performance. It has some useful language and insight that can help people understand risk management, whatever standard you adopt. That language can be used by ISO advocates, for example when explaining risk management to executives and the board.

In addition, even if you like the ISO risk management standard, it does not provide the insight into internal control provided by the COSO framework. It is perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, to adopt ISO for risk management and COSO for internal control.

I have one quibble that I think is worth mentioning: the authors at one point say that internal control “deals primarily with risk reduction”. I disagree. It should serve to provide assurance that the right level of risk is taken. On occasion, that may mean taking more risk. For example, one objective that is too often overlooked is to be efficient. More risk in reviewing expense reports might be appropriate when the cost of intense reviews exceeds the potential for expense-related fraud or error. Another example is when a decision has to be made on the quantity of key raw materials to re-order as quantities on hand fall. Current practice may be to place an order that will bring inventory to 20% more than is expected to be consumed in the next period, as a precaution in case of quality issues or should incoming orders exceed the anticipated level. But, having excess materials can result in a different risk. Risk management thinking can help us decide how much risk to take when it comes to running out of raw materials compared to how much risk to take that the materials may degrade due to extended time sitting on the shelf.

But back to talking about the “good bits”, with the first from the Executive Summary:

“Within the context of its mission, an organization is designed to accomplish objectives. It is presumed that the organization’s leaders can articulate its objectives, develop strategies to achieve those objectives, identify the risks to achieving those objectives and then mitigate those risks in delivering the strategy. The ERM framework is based on objective setting and the identification and mitigation or acceptance of risks to the achievement of objectives. The internal control framework is designed to control risks to the achievement of objectives by reducing them to acceptable levels. Thus, each of the frameworks is inextricably tied into the operation of a business through the achievement of objectives. ERM is applied in the strategy-setting process while internal control is applied to address many of the risks identified in strategy setting.”

Comment: While COSO Internal Control Framework assumes (or presumes) that the appropriate objectives are set, as we all know controls within the objective-setting process are essential to address such matters as engaging the right people in the decisions and providing them with reliable information.

“The ERM framework asserts that well-designed and effectively operating enterprise risk management can provide reasonable assurance to management and the board of directors regarding achievement of an entity’s objectives. Likewise, the internal control framework asserts that internal control provides reasonable assurance to entities that they can achieve important objectives and sustain and improve performance. The “reasonable assurance” concept embodied in both frameworks reflects two notions. First, uncertainty and risk relate to the future, which cannot be precisely predicted. Second, risks to the achievement of objectives have been reduced to an acceptable level.”

“In general, ERM involves those elements of the governance and management process that enable management to make informed risk-based decisions. Informed risk responses, including the internal controls that accompany them, are designed to reduce the risk associated with achieving organizational objectives to be within the organization’s risk appetite. Therefore, ERM/internal control and the objective of achieving the organization’s strategic goals are mutually dependent.”

“Robust enough to be applied independently on their own, the two COSO frameworks have a common purpose — to help the enterprise achieve its objectives and to optimize the inevitable tension between the enterprise’s value creation and value protection activities. Therefore, both facilitate and support the governance process when implemented effectively.”

“ERM instills within the organization a discipline around managing risk in the context of managing the business such that discussions of opportunities and risks and how they are managed are virtually inseparable from each other. An organization’s strategic direction and its ability to execute on that direction are both fundamental to the risks it undertakes. Risks are implicit in any organization’s strategy. Accordingly, risk assessment should be an integral part of the strategy-setting process. Strategic and other risks should be supported or rationalized by management’s determination that the upside potential from assuming those risks is sufficient and/or the organization can manage the risks effectively.”

“The risk assessment process considers inherent and residual risk and applies such factors as likelihood of occurrence, severity of impact, velocity of impact, persistence of impact and response readiness to analyze and prioritize risks. Risk assessment techniques include contrarian analysis, value chain analysis, scenario analysis, at-risk frameworks (e.g., value, earnings, cash flow or capital) and other quantitative and qualitative approaches to evaluating risk. Furthermore, risk assessment considers relationships between seemingly unrelated events to develop thematic insights on potential long-term trends, strategic possibilities and operational exposures.”

Comment: Although many leading experts have moved away from the concepts of inherent and residual risk, I still like them. What I like most in this paragraph is the discussion of other important attributes of risk. Impact and likelihood are not the only factors to consider when assessing whether the level of risk is acceptable.

“…..organizations must “plan” for disruption and build and refine their radar systems to measure and be on the alert for changes in key risk indicators (leading indicators) versus rely solely on key performance indicators (which are often lagging and retrospective in nature). Looking forward will enable an organization’s culture to support an experimental and adaptable mindset. Adapting is all about positioning companies to quickly recognize a unique opportunity or risk and use that knowledge to evaluate their options and seize the initiative either before anyone else or along with other organizations that likewise recognize the significance of what’s developing in the marketplace. Early movers have the advantage of time, with more decision-making options before market shifts invalidate critical assumptions underlying the strategy. Failing to adapt can be fatal in today’s complex and dynamic business environment.”

“Organizational resiliency is the ability and discipline to act decisively on revisions to strategic and business plans in response to changing market realities. This capability begins to emerge as organizations integrate strategic plans, risk management and performance management and create improved transparency into the enterprise’s operations to measure current performance and anticipate future trends.”

I welcome your comments on this paper and my analysis.

  1. Norman Marks
    February 12, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    You can find the COSO paper at http://www.coso.org

  2. John Fraser
    February 16, 2014 at 4:46 PM

    Norman, I have just read this document and tried to assess its value. It does attempt to reconcile the two frameworks, which in fact was a problem with the 2004 ERM paper, maybe this piece of work should have been done back then.
    I found it a very difficult read and wonder whether people who are new to these topics will in fact be able to follow it. One of The few things that jumped out at me was that COSO now seems to have adopted the concept of a “risk appetite statement”. This concept came out of the financial services sector and while it has meant lots of fees for consultants helping craft such documents, I have not had the pleasure of hearing of them actually functioning as conceived, e.g. I hear of them being produced but not shared with staff as they are considered too sensitive. The other thing I found interesting was that COSO still thinks of risks as relating to “events”. While potential events can create uncertainty and the potential for leverage or impacts, there can be other sources of risks besides events.
    As your paper points out, there is certainly some good stuff in this paper but it ideally should be written in simpler language and be of more practical guidance.

    • Norman Marks
      February 17, 2014 at 7:49 AM

      Thanks, John. I agree with your comments and am intrigued that management would be reluctant to share their ‘risk appetite statement’. Totally obviates risk management.

      • John Fraser
        February 17, 2014 at 10:41 AM

        Ask your friends who work at large banks if they have seen their banks’ risk appetite statements and are using them to manage the business.

  1. February 11, 2014 at 12:05 PM
  2. February 14, 2014 at 5:26 AM

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