Eric Cowperthwaite: Connect the dots

CISO of Providence Health and Services closes organizational gaps to create foresight (CSO Compass Awards 2012)

Businesses frequently divide risk and security efforts among several business units or make them specific to a certain place or type of activity: Electronic is separate from physical is separate from financial. However, keeping them all apart makes it impossible to understand how one risk can affect and exacerbate so many others. That's the problem Eric Cowperthwaite, CISO for Providence Health and Services, is most concerned with.

The 2012 CSO Compass Award Honorees

This year's CSO Compass Award winners point the way toward risk management that's more inclusive — and more exact

Cowperthwaite has been overseeing Providence's drive to create enterprisewide risk management. He wants to close the gaps that allow issues to be overlooked—most likely because no one is looking at the entire picture.

[Read more about Providence Health's approach in Risk's rewards: Organizational models for ERM]

"Our goal is to see it before it imperils the organization," he says. Cowperthwaite wants to prevent anything like what happened after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and companies had no idea how much risk they faced as a result of that.

"One person can't see everything. How are we going to know what large, critical risks we are threatened by when people weren't able to see it in 2008?"

Working with Providence's chief risk officer, as well as with the heads of the audit, compliance, privacy, insurance and security departments, Cowperthwaite developed and implemented an enterprise risk management services group.

This new organization is built according to how the business actually operates and not some inherited idea of how security should be divided. "This is a vision of a group of people who feel really strongly about the need for risk management at the enterprise level," he says.

That's not to say he doesn't understand the need for specific types of expertise. "We wanted to share our knowledge," he says. "We knew it wouldn't make sense to have tech people reporting to people who just analyze risk, just as it wouldn't make sense to have people who analyze risk reporting to tech people."

Having all these people together under one organizational roof means it is easier to see if a denial-of-service attack is actually part of another, bigger threat by understanding its potential financial impact. The strategy has also made it possible to create a model for defining and measuring inherent, managed and residual risk at Providence.

Combining the security and risk functions raised their profile and made the entire organization more aware of what risk is. This, in turn, has led to a better understanding of what really causes risk for Providence, a nonprofit that runs 27 hospitals, 214 physician clinics, senior services and more in five states.

"We've really worked on the human side of risk management," says Cowperthwaite. "Instead of just asking the top five executives what risks they saw, we asked the top 150, 'What risk do you face?'"

Healthcare reform is a great example of this. Historically, Providence had viewed it as a risk—not because it's bad or good, but because it causes change.

"By talking to all these people, we found out it's not the healthcare reform that's the risk, it's the things we need to change because of it," he says.

"Understanding this let us minimize the risk caused by those changes."

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies