Security Experts:

How CISOs Can Demonstrate Business Value

CISOs Must Clearly Demonstrate Their Value to the Business in Dollars and Cents

If you’re the typical CISO or other level of information security officer, chances are this job description sounds about right:

“My role is to manage information security to keep the business secure.”

And your success metrics – how you communicate what you do to the rest of business – probably relate to maintenance and improvement of the technical aspects for security, such as vulnerabilities patched or NIST CSF maturity levels met.

If that’s you, I’d argue that you have your job description only partially correct.  In fact, your job, like everyone else’s in the organization, is not just about defending the business but enabling the business to make money at an acceptable level of risk, cost-effectively.  

To truly succeed in their roles, CISOs must clearly demonstrate their value to the business in dollars and cents. That’s going to mean shifting their branding from “minimize threats and vulnerabilities” to include "providing options for business enablement", where trade-offs between security investments levels and resulting risks are clearly articulated for informed business decisions to be made. 

CISOs need to focus on the strategic objectives of the business, as well as the people, technology and processes supporting the most important functions of the business.  The technical side of security needs to be seen as part of that whole.  For example, your risk register. Most risk registers are run as a ledger book, a place to record control deficiencies, audit findings and policy exceptions or just vague categories of worrisome things like “moving to the cloud”.  

Those entries may get categorized based on the gut feel of analysts as high-medium-low risk (most likely medium!) or just left in an undifferentiated pile. Either way, no effort is made to relate these “risks” to anything the business cares about – like a potential financial loss.

ADP has a better way. The human resources and payroll services company, and one of the most sophisticated cyber risk managers around, has two rules for risk register management, as described by ADP’s Lead Security Consultant, Marta Palanques, at the FAIR Conference 2017:

1. Every entry must relate to an IT asset that must in turn relate to a product line. For instance, the risk might be loss of a data center that knocks out servers that run applications that run products that bring in revenue.

2. Every entry must be defined as a “loss event” according to the standard FAIR model (Factor Analysis of Information Risk) for cyber risk quantification, with a potential frequency and impact in dollar terms (as in lost revenue from the data center outage).

A risk register like ADP’s clearly demonstrates the business value of cybersecurity and quantification is the key. With an estimate in dollar terms of loss events, CISOs can also prioritize a Top Risks list based on relative ranges of potential losses then rank, for instance, the cost of that application going down vs. the loss by data breach of the customer information tied to that application.

The next step in the value chain is to answer the question, “Among our top risks, what’s the return on investment for mitigation?”  Again, risk analysts can leverage the FAIR model, tweak inputs in given risk analyses and look at alternate scenarios, for instance, “Would implementing two-factor authentication reduce the probable losses enough to justify the investment?”

Next, risk analysts can seek to answer the question of whether actual loss exposure is decreasing over time. To do that, they identify the variables across the top risks that most influence the potential losses, and track and report on those Key Risk Indicators regularly.

The ultimate demonstration of the value proposition of cybersecurity will come when CISOs have fully integrated their cyber risk quantification work into the organization’s enterprise risk management program. When they are able to discuss on equal terms with the keepers of market risk and financial risk how cybersecurity helps grow the value of the business. Maybe a lofty goal, but one that starts with a tangible first step, implementing a businesslike approach to measuring cyber risk, built on a standard risk quantification model like FAIR.

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Nicola (Nick) Sanna is the CEO of RiskLens. In 2015, he championed the creation of a nonprofit expert organization, the FAIR Institute, which focuses on helping organizations manage information and operational risk from the business perspective. Prior to RiskLens, Nick was CEO of Netuitive, an IT Operations Analytics software company and served as CEO of e-Security, a SIEM company that was ultimately sold to Novell. Earlier, Nick contributed to the growth of ASG as VP EMEA and as COO, and acted as the VP Sales and Marketing for Amplitude Int'l. Nick is a regular lecturer at universities across the US on the subject of social entrepreneurship and is an advisory board member of the business school at CUA. He is fluent in 5 languages and received a masters degree in Economics and Trade from the University of Rome La Sapienza.