Philip Cao

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IT Risk: Making Better Connections Between Smoke and Fire

3 min read


Adults don’t really like new ideas, and while cyber risk may have been born around the time of the first mainframes, it can still feel new today. CEB reported last month that 66 percent of business leaders don’t understand the cyber security information that goes to the board. This isn’t a failure of business leaders but of the messages they’re receiving.

While children consume and learn voraciously, adults struggle with finding context, skepticism, and social conditioning. Overcoming these cognitive biases to drive your company toward more risk-savvy behavior means you’re going to have to deliver a pretty clear and effective message. Keep in mind these three rules of thumb to improve how well your risk reporting is understood.

One message at a time. Yes, IT risk is complicated and often there are many steps between a threat and the preventative actions needed to keep them from happening. Keep those connections in your appendix for later questions. Instead, focus your reports on the actions needed to be taken. Don’t contrast vulnerability scans with failures in change management controls on the same page. The risk is different, the response is different, and you’re inviting confusion.

A single message has another benefit: if you are only trying to change one behavior, you’ll have a much easier time tracking the effectiveness of your message and adjusting in the future.

Risks become consequences. A focus on threat vectors, incidents and trends is good for figuring out where controls are weak or strong, but sometimes bad for grounding the danger in something meaningful for a non-cyber savvy professional.

Focus on the consequences of the risks being reported. Phishing simulations may show an increase of management clicking on suspicious links, but other than potentially receiving a scolding, why should people care? Link phishing to a particularly painful data loss event, or laptops held ransom, and include recovery time as well. There may be no effective recovery from ransomware, and reparations for exposed personal information could cost millions and take years. The Anthem data breach from February 2015 is still in the courts.

Consider your audience. One kind of message will rarely work for everyone. Not only will managers, VPs and executives all have different perspectives on the world and the work that IT security is doing, but they all have different backgrounds and interests.

Take a look at your audience. Will executive management be making decisions about change control check gates? Generally not, so your one message to them shouldn’t be to get them to improve the sign-off process in application development. Maybe the better message is that investments in release management software haven’t been effective in reducing production failures.

Tailoring risk reporting to the people receiving it is the best way to increase the odds that your message is received. It’s cumbersome, but this is the heart of risk management: to reveal connections between sometimes esoteric events and business opportunities so that leaders can make the right calls at the right time.

Editor’s note: Adam Leigh will present on “Consequences That Matter – IT Risk” at North America CACS 2017, which will take place 1-3 May in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.

Adam Leigh, CISA, CISM, CGEIT, CRISC, Manager, ITRM Operations, MetLife

[ISACA Now Blog]

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