• Ben Desjardins

First-Line Lessons from Napoleon's Front-Line Management


He thought he had it all under control.

From deep within his confines of the Chateau de Fontaineblue, Napoleon Bonaparte did during a particularly critical juncture of the Napoleanic Wars exactly what he had always done; what had always brought him success in past. Throughout the battles that raged between France and England from 1793 through 1815, Napoleon maintained close control of the moves of his army applying what by now had become one of history’s most accomplished military minds. Only at key moment in the war, the dynamics had changed in ways that he hadn’t carefully considered in terms of operational impact. While up until late 1805 the majority of the war had played out on fields across western Europe, the battle had taken to the seas, and the Battle of Trafalgar would prove a key turning point forever changing the course of Europe’s history.


In the best-selling book Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World, Rod Adkins describes how Napoleon was “used to organizing grand projects that relied on the fast and reliable transmission of orders to move large armies across the landscape.” Some would say Napoleon’s error was one of strategy, of not trusting in the French Navy, led by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. In fact, Adkins writes “while trying to impose tight control on his ships at seas through a constant stream of orders, he produced more chaos than if he had left his admirals to their own devices.


While it’s hard to argue against the validity of this point, the eventual shortcomings of Napoleon’s approach also point towards some important factors that in many ways are relatable to the challenges facing business and risk professionals in managing today’s complex operational environments. Specifically, I see two failures:

  1. Understanding the changing dynamics of the battlefield

  2. Understanding the opportunities and limitations of technology to stay engaged with front lines

If you’ll forgive the melodramatic metaphor, the changing dynamics of business operations compare favorably to the shifting battlefield that challenged the French strategy. A Gartner, Inc. survey of 317 CFOs and Finance leaders last March revealed that 74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19. Understanding how that new reality, one which many were planning for but has been dramatically accelerated, is essential to maintaining effective first-line coordination and collaboration.


When you consider further the additional shifts in outsourced dependencies represented by the move to third party and vendor execution, the challenge becomes even more complex. According to media coverage of a 2020 Ponemon survey, the typical enterprise has an average of 5,800 third parties, and that number is expected to grow by 15 percent in the next year.


Both of these dynamics present new realities of limited visibility and have dramatic impact on identification of new risks and the responsiveness of various branches of far-flung operation and execution.


The second lesson is around understanding how the technology requirements for achieving first-line and vendor management are different. In Napoleon’s case, he continued to rely on frequent and granular changes in orders, which for land-based battles could be more reliably delivered by horse-driven carriers. The sea-based troops needed a different approach, as the small crafts meant to carry new orders swiftly proved ineffective in keeping pace with the changing risks on these front lines.


The needs highlighted by these lessons are at the forefront of the innovation within the recent launch of Archer Engage. My colleague Jeremy Fisher recently covered in great detail the need to ‘meet the first line’ where and how they are accustomed to working.


And so as we continue to share the details of Archer Engage with our customers we are working to help them explore key questions related to first-line collaboration, such as:

  • How much more effective would your risk function be if you could increase the response rate on first-line assessments by 25%? By 50%

  • To what degree would risk be reduced if you had double or triple the visibility into your third party readiness for new risks as they emerge?

  • How valuable is speed in responding to risk? What if your assessment or incident notification process could be dramatically sped up?

Archer Engage provides a solution for our customers with a streamlined user experience across the organization that enables broad stakeholder participation in risk management. This simplified and efficient collection of risk data from cross-functional stakeholders is fed into the Archer platform for analysis and treatment. Learn more about Archer Engage and how you can streamline risk management collaboration.