Titanic: Would a People Risk approach have saved lives?

On April 15th, 1912, the Titanic was hit by an iceberg and sank. Commentators of the time believed that the ship was unsinkable and Captain Smith, Commander of the Titanic famously said, “I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel” The belief that the Titanic was unsinkable led to a catastrophic complacency of risk.

Had there not been this culture of complacency then even if the ship collided with the iceberg then there would almost certainly be far less loss of life. In total 1517 people lost their lives and 705 people survived. The strong belief that the ship would not sink meant there was limited risk analysis and no people risk approach. The people risk analysis that could have been conducted is 3 fold.

1)      Risk based resourcing of the right people in the right jobs

A people risk analysis would have focused on whether or not the right people were managing the ship. An investigation into the captain’s recent history shows that the Captain had two incidents in 1911 with the Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic. One of the incidents involved a collision with a British warship and was deemed to be the fault of the Olympic. Based on his recent track record it is questionable whether Captain Smith had the competence to manage the Titanic. However, Captain Smith was known as the ‘Millionaire’s Captain’ with wealthy customers wanting him as their captain so to have removed him may have damaged the reputation of the company.  Had people risk been formally considered, then the balance between reputation and competence would have ‘defined the appetite for risk’. In other words a formal decision would have been made and documented that  Captain Smith’s reputation with wealthy customers was more important than his recent collisions. If the risks had been identified and measured then it would have been possible to mitigate against them, for example they could have ensured that there was a technically competent support team in place.

2)      Targeted learning that reduces risk

It is not always possible to eliminate risk, but it can be reduced. A training program that targets the reduction of risk can be critical to managing the impact. For the Titanic, had a full people risk assessment been conducted then training on the use of lifeboats would have been provided to all crew and passengers along with a full emergency drill before setting sail. If this had happened it is highly probable that more lives would have been saved as it is estimated that had the lifeboats been filled to their capacity then another 470 people could have been saved.  

3)      Regulated Industry

Clearly, there was a lack of regulation or critical control across the industry sector at the turn of the 20th century. Regulation can be both imposed by governments or jointly managed and supported within the industry. For example the banking industry collaborates to eliminate fraud. If the cruise line sector had considered risk and people risk holistically then more robust and holistic rescue measures and controls would have been in place. For example the nearest ship to the Titanic, the Californian, would have been able to support the rescue efforts but instead the wireless operator was asleep and the Captain of the ship did not issue any orders. The holistic people risk approach may have been to have a 24 hour watch available on all ships would have saved lives.  


The people risk lessons of the Titanic are relevant for today as those organisations who are complacent towards people risk are in danger of not preparing and developing until it is too late. They risk a high level of negative exposure which may incur a heavy impact and leave behind a damaged organisation.

For further insight on ‘People Risk’, click on Capgemini’s thought leadership article, ‘Risk-based approach to HCM for long-term business advantage’