Magazine article Security Management

Detecting Early Signs of Trouble: Dwindling Time for Reaction Is a Feature of the Modern International Scene. Companies Must Get Better at Spotting Warning Signs and Anticipating Problems

Magazine article Security Management

Detecting Early Signs of Trouble: Dwindling Time for Reaction Is a Feature of the Modern International Scene. Companies Must Get Better at Spotting Warning Signs and Anticipating Problems

Article excerpt

THE WORLD OF SECURITY is changing faster than we sometimes realize or wish to acknowledge. In addition to the age-old problems of violence and crime, security executives now have to contend with international terrorism, environmental damage, energy disruptions, protest movements, and potential pandemics. To these protracted and almost universal problems one can add the prospect of unexpected and often violent natural events like earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes.

One certainty is that there will be ever less time to plan and control responses to fast-moving and unpredictable events; furthermore, there will be ever-greater penalties and burdens for failing to react effectively. Dwindling reaction time is a feature of the modern international scene. If we are to get ahead of the steep response curve, then we must increasingly look ahead and anticipate. This means increasing our planning and preparation well before any potential event. As a result, we need to develop more imaginative and dedicated threat assessments, as well as a more structured approach to measuring the likely pitfalls and warning signs.

Tipping Point

During the Cold War, NATO used a fairly unsophisticated method for assessing the readiness of the Warsaw Pact countries for launching an attack on the West. This involved measuring activities like ammunition outloading, tank movements to the front, the call-up of reserves, and large-scale exercises. Such activities were individually scored on a color-coded board, and when enough green and yellow dots changed to red, an imminent attack was thought likely. An alert could then be issued and forces prepared.


This relatively simple warning system tried to identify the key indicators that would help to foretell a pending crisis, and to reflect the collective triggers that could turn an orderly situation into a dangerous one. The phrase "tipping point" usefully conveys the idea of a scale: essentially, it is a fulcrum around which are balanced benign and hostile environments, with the outcome dependent on the loadings applied to either side. The shift from one to the other could perhaps be dramatic or possibly imperceptible, often as a result of the slightest pressure. Naturally, it is in the interest of security managers everywhere to offset any adverse threats with liberal measures of planning and preparation, thereby preventing the tipping point from ever being reached.

The modern corporate security professional could readily adopt and adapt a warning system like that used by the military to help prepare for the dangers ahead in the business world. When examining the corporate environment, security can find many different indicators which, if collected and measured, could usefully help to point to a looming problem or crisis. Such indicators range from abnormal share trading to terrorist reconnaissance to adverse media reporting. If these elements are amassed and studied, they may indicate that an organization is, or is about to become, a target. If the indicators are designed wisely and collated proactively, then the dangers ahead may be detected in time to be avoided. Here are some examples of how indicators could have pointed to trouble ahead for two different companies.

In 2002, Swiss Air sold the catering contract for British Airways flights to U.S. venture capitalist Texas Pacific Group, which, in turn, owned Gate Gourmet. This was the first indicator: Gate Gourmet became the single catering supplier to British Airways but the company had not made a profit since 2000; in 2004, the company lost approximately $34 million. This was indicator two. In 2004, media reports indicated growing sympathies between union members employed by the caterers and other service suppliers at Heathrow airport in London. The third indicator came in early 2005, after the key union at Gate Gourmet and officials had spent months in crisis talks over pay and productivity issues. …

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