James Joyce Meets ERM

Morgan O'Rourke


June 2, 2012

June is not a big month for holidays in the United States. Sure there is Flag Day and Father's Day, but those don't even merit a day off of work. June does contain the first day of summer, which is particularly great if you are a student looking forward to two months of vacation, but that's about it. Unless you consider June 16.

For the literary minded, June 16 is Bloomsday, a day that commemorates the life of Irish writer James Joyce and coincides with the date that events take place in his most famous novel, Ulysses. The name is derived from Leopold Bloom, the main protagonist in the book, and on that day there are performances, readings and parties around the world to celebrate what many consider to be the greatest book ever written. It's pretty impressive. After all, aside from the Bible, how many books inspire their own holiday?

I'm an avid reader and I have long been aware of Ulysses' lofty reputation. The Modern Library's list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, which I actually used to carry with me in case I was ever in a bookstore and at a loss for what to buy, ranked Ulysses number one. And despite having read as many of those classics as possible, Ulysses still eludes me. It is not for lack of trying, however. The truth is I have started the book at least three separate times and never gotten past the first 100 pages, mainly because by that point I'm usually thoroughly confused.

Ulysses is a notoriously challenging novel that frequently uses an experimental, stream-of-consciousness style that is very hard to follow for someone who isn't living inside James Joyce's head. This is probably best exemplified by its final section, which contains a supposedly classic run-on sentence that, at 4,391-words-long, once held the title as the longest sentence in English literature. (To give you an idea of how long that is, this column is roughly 700 words.) Joyce himself said that Ulysses includes "so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant."

Of course, I have never gotten close to the end, so I can't tell you if the book lives up to the hype. I mean to find out though. There have been other classics that have taken me multiple attempts to get into — Moby Dick and Atlas Shrugged come to mind — and I have usually found that once I finally tackled them, the experience proved to be worth the initial struggle. So it's probably time to give Ulysses another chance.

Now you're probably asking yourself, "What does any of this have to do with risk management?" Well, believe it or not, I see some parallels between my quest to read Ulysses and many risk managers' experience with ERM and strategic risk management. Just as Ulysses is considered one of the most important books ever written and a must-read for anyone with literary aspirations, ERM is widely considered to be among the most important endeavors to help advance risk management within an organization.

But like Ulysses, these concepts aren't new. The book was written in 1922, and ERM has been around in one form or another for decades. These days, however, the promise and hype of ERM seems to have reached a tipping point. At the recent RIMS 2012 Annual Conference & Exhibition in Philadelphia, for instance, every educational session with ERM (or its cousin SRM) in the title was booked to capacity.

At this point, not implementing an ERM program may actually be doing a disservice to your job as a risk manager. Kind of like not reading Ulysses may be doing a disservice to my job as a writer (as I continue running this analogy into the ground). Like reading James Joyce, implementing ERM is certainly a difficult process that takes a lot of perseverance, but risks have simply become too complex to not consider their larger organizational and strategic implications. The fact that it is difficult may no longer be a valid excuse. As the recent "Excellence in Risk" survey conducted by Marsh and RIMS reports, company leaders want risk managers to take on greater strategic roles within their organizations.

So maybe it's time for all of us to listen to the experts. It sounds like the benefits in both cases will be well worth it.

Granted, reading a novel like Ulysses won't have quite the same business impact as starting an ERM program, but at least you won't have to face any colossal, 4,000-word sentences.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)