Like battling the multi-headed Hydra in Greek mythology, redundant, manual, and uncoordinated governance, risk management, and compliance (GRC) approaches are ineffective. As the Hydra grows more heads of regulation, legal matters, operational risks, and complexity, scattered departments of GRC responsibilities that do not work together become overwhelmed and exhausted and start losing the battle. This approach increases inefficiencies and the risk that serious matters go unnoticed. Redundant and inefficient processes lead to overwhelming complexity that slows the business, at a time when the business environment requires greater agility.

Successful GRC strategy in complex business environments requires layers of protection to ensure that the organization can “reliably achieve objectives [Governance] while addressing uncertainty [Risk Management] and act with integrity [Compliance].” (source: Any strategist, whether in games, sports, combat, or business, understands that layers of defense are critical to the protection of assets and achievement of objectives. Consider a castle in the Middle Ages in which there are layers of protection by moats, gates, outer walls, inner walls, with all sorts of offensive traps and triggers along the way. Organizations are modern castles that require layers of defense to protect the organization and allow it to reliably achieve strategic objectives.

The Three Lines of Defense model is the key model that enables organizations to organize and manage layers of GRC controls and responsibilities. The European Commission originally established it in 2006 as a voluntary audit directive within the European Union. Since this time, it has grown in popularity and is now a globally accepted framework for integrated GRC across lines of defense within organizations – from the front lines, to the back office of GRC, to the assurance and oversight roles. GRC 20/20 sees the Three Lines of Defense Model as critical to enable organizations to reliably achieve objectives while addressing uncertainty and act with integrity.

As the name suggests, the Three Lines of Defense model is comprised of three layers of GRC responsibility and accountability in organizations. These are:

  • Business Operations. The front lines of the organization across operations and processes comprise the roles that make risk and control decisions every day. This represents the functions within departments and processes that ultimately own and manage risk and controls in the context of business activities. These roles need to be empowered to identify, assess, document, report, and respond to risks, issues, and controls in the organization. This first layer operates within the policies, controls, and tolerances defined by the next layer of defense, GRC professionals.
  • GRC Professionals. The back office of GRC functions (e.g., risk management, corporate compliance, ethics, finance, health & safety, security, quality, legal, and internal control) are the roles that specify and define the boundaries of the organization that are established in policy, procedure, controls, and risk tolerances. These roles oversee, assess, monitor, and manage risk, compliance, and control activities in the context of business operations, transactions, and activities.
  • Assurance Professionals. The third layer of defense is assurance professionals (e.g., internal audit, external audit) that provide thorough, objective, and independent assurance on business operations and controls. It is their primary responsibility to provide assurance to the Board of Directors and executives that the first and second lines of defense are operating within established boundaries and are providing complete and accurate information to management. This is accomplished through planning and executing audit engagements to support assurance needs.

The Three Lines of Defense Model is well understood and adopted globally. The major downside of the model is the name itself using the word ‘defense.’ This gives the model a perception of being reactionary and tactical and not strategic. This is unfortunate as the model enables high-performance by aligning accountabilities at different levels of the organization and getting these functions working together in context of each other. High performing organizations require consistency and controls to ensure the organization operates within boundaries of controls. The Three Lines of Defense Model is key to enable reliable achievement of objectives and consistent control of the business.

The key to success in implementing the Three Lines of Defense Model is collaboration. If the layers of accountability across the three lines do not collaborate and work together, GRC functions will remain in silos and be ineffective, inefficient, and lack agility to respond to a complex and dynamic business environment. Internal politics and divisions work against the Three Lines of Defense Model in organizations.

Another challenge for organizations in implementing the Three Lines of Defense Model is not having a consistent GRC process, information, and technology architecture. Not only do different groups across the lines of defense need to be able to work together, they need to be able to share information and have a consistent and single source of truth for GRC activities, accountabilities, and controls.

The Bottom Line: Three Lines of Defense is an integrated GRC framework with the goal of allowing different parts of the organization to work cohesively together to reliably achieve objectives while addressing uncertainty and acting with integrity. It enables what OCEG calls Principled Performance, and ensures that there are clear responsibilities, accountability, and oversight of risk and control at all levels of the organization. Organizations are adopting the Three Lines of Defense Model for GRC as they have come to realize that silos of GRC that do not collaborate and work together lead to inevitable failure. There is a need for visibility across these lines of defense that is scalable, integrated and consistent. The Three Lines of Defense Model enables efficient, effective, and agile business.

GRC 20/20’s latest research piece evaluating solutions on this topic is:

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