How to Build a Risk Management Champions Network at Any Organization


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Enlist the help of a champions network to manage risks on campus                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Why Iowa Farmers Began Using Hybrid Seed

In the early 1920s, the agricultural world was revolutionized by the invention of hybrid seed corn in Ames, Iowa. Hybrid seed allowed farmers in Iowa to increase their corn crop yields by 20 percent per acre. While it was invented in the early 1920s, by the time it became widely used by Iowa farmers, a decade had gone by. It had taken so long for the innovation to become widely adopted by Iowa farmers that in the mid-1930s a sociologist from Harvard University, Dr. Bryce Ryan, came to Iowa to study the why and the what – why it took so long to catch on and what the factors were that eventually caused its widespread adoption.

Dr. Ryan gathered data from personal interviews with farmers in Iowa communities and found that while many farmers were first introduced to hybrid seed through commercial seed dealers and agricultural salespeople, what ultimately convinced many farmers to adopt the practice of planting hybrid seed in their field was their social networks: other farmers, neighbors, and trusted friends. It was their interpersonal relationships that were the deciding factors in causing so many farmers to begin planting hybrid seed in their cornfields.

Dr. Ryan’s study would form the base of a field of research that continues to this day known as The Diffusion of Innovations. ‘Diffusion’ is the process by which an ‘innovation’ (a new idea or practice) is communicated through certain channels over time amongst members of a social system. In other words, the Diffusion of Innovations is just a very scientific, academic way of saying: the spread of ideas. The hybrid seed corn study was one of the first to demonstrate that interpersonal communication with trusted peers was a deciding factor in influencing individuals to adopt an idea and spread it among their social networks. Today, thousands of Diffusion of Innovations studies have been conducted across numerous fields of research and industries – all of which were born out of the initial study by Dr. Ryan in Iowa 100 years ago.

Are You Reaching the Most People or the Right People?

As a risk management professional, how often are you leveraging your trusted relationships and social networks? Are your efforts focused on reaching the most people when they should be aimed at reaching the right people—those who can influence others and spread innovative and effective risk management ideas and solutions within your organization? Do you have people within your organization who can be utilized as representatives to champion such ideas and solutions? Have you considered building a risk management champions network?

Building a Compliant Culture

In March 2023, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) updated its Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs. The 2023 amendments include a paragraph listing the factors that the DOJ considers in determining whether to prosecute companies for compliance violations. This language states, in part:

“Prosecutors should examine whether a company has made working on compliance a means of career advancement, offered opportunities for managers and employees to serve as a compliance ‘champion,’ or made compliance a significant metric for management bonuses.”

Champions networks are now a DOJ-recommended model for building a compliant culture and mitigating against potential prosecution. Simply defined, a champions network is a group of individuals that aim to bring awareness, integration, or change to an organization relating to a matter they are not experts on, but which they have been chosen to represent and advocate for on behalf of subject-matter experts.

Incorporating a Champion Network into Risk Management

Champions can be utilized to introduce and adopt a new organizational process, program, way of working, or culture shift. For the average risk management professional, a champions network can be utilized in several ways—not only to help spread ideas and impact organizational culture but to find representatives at the local or departmental level to act as the eyes and ears of the risk management function, remaining aware of and reporting back on potential issues and concerns as they arise. From compliance and ethics to workplace safety, cybersecurity, DEI initiatives, and much more, risk management champions can serve as a valuable resource within higher education institutions.

Considering the guidance from the DOJ and the benefits of a champions network, provided below is a six-step blueprint to build and implement an effective risk management champions network:

Step 1: Gain Leadership Commitment

Be prepared to ask for buy-in from different levels of the organization and different departments, and to tailor your message to them. A one-time pitch or a one-size-fits-all approach to gaining buy-in may not be enough, depending on the type of network you plan to operate and the size of your organization.

Step 2: Create the Network Structure

You establish legitimacy for your network if you have an organized structure with clear documentation and accountability for all network participants. A formal structure clarifies the responsibilities of champions, so they know what to expect of the program and what is expected of them.

Step 3: Recruit the Champions

Ideally, you are looking for employees who have developed trust among their colleagues and who know their organization. Most importantly, you are looking for willing volunteers who have an interest in filling the champions’ role.

Step 4: Train the Champions

Training is an opportunity to excite, engage, and educate your champions, not just on their responsibilities but how to effectively carry out those responsibilities. Training programs can be tailored to your specific champions' network size and structure.

Step 5: Implement the Network

The champions network you implement at the start may look different after only a short time. Be open-minded to input and suggestions that you receive from your champions, as well as any leaders and employees within the organization who interact with your network and your champions.

Step 6: Measure Network Success

Measuring the success of your champions network is an opportunity for you to demonstrate why your champions network should continue to receive leadership support and a budget, as well as how it can grow and improve in the long term.


By Matthew Silverman, CEO and Founder, The Blueprint Organization

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