Using KPIs to generate results in Cybersecurity

February 3, 2022  |  Shannon Brewster

Gaining investment from business leaders to create a mature cybersecurity program and fund initiatives is an imperative for success in enterprise risk mitigation. All too often, security and IT organizations struggle to capture the attention of executives needed to advance their priorities and build even basic cybersecurity capabilities.

Year after year, important initiatives get deprioritized for other business initiatives, pushing out the adoption of important technologies or funding of headcount to manage critical processes. The result is an organization with increasing exposure to risk and unwanted cybersecurity challenges. Fundamental capabilities for effective security operations that improve visibility, such as a SIEM, are deemed too expensive.

What strategies can cybersecurity staff use to cut through the noise of competing business initiatives and get the focus and investment they need to achieve their objectives? Or to properly fund the adoption of a new technology or capability? 

One way is to build a reporting system that speaks executive language and abstracts difficult to understand technology into business concepts: risk, reward, performance objectives, metrics, and success. Simply establishing what the basic priorities of a cybersecurity program are and then formally reporting out on key performance indicators on a regular basis can have a profound impact. What an organization chooses to pay attention naturally grows. 

What is reported can vary from organization to organization, depending on the operating environment, the type of data transmitted and stored, and regulatory and compliance standards in play, to name a few. A guiding principle should be simplicity; too many data points create noise and inaction. At a minimum, many organizations will look at the attack surface, vulnerabilities and exposures, incidents, and employee training as a good starting point. 

Asset management

Asset management is at the core of every program. It’s impossible to guard what you don’t know or see, and yet most organizations fail to have a full grasp of their basic IT footprint. Every piece of hardware and software owned by an organization must be accounted for and every connection to its networks and infrastructure from ancillary systems monitored.

Shadow IT, Bring Your Own Device, and Work from Anywhere have exacerbated these challenges as traditional network edges evaporate and the flow of corporate data across untrusted networks and devices has become increasingly common. This complicated patch work is the corporation’s attack surface. Reporting the scope of that footprint, at the very least, demonstrates awareness of what matters to the organization.

Surprisingly, many organizations can’t easily quantify how many servers they own, the type of operating systems they run, the number of workstations and mobile devices they have, or even where their assets are at any given point in time. This knowledge is fundamental and reporting it regularly to executives ensures that they appreciate the scope of the program while also establishing a priority to keep data fresh and consistently update to date. 

Vulnerabilities and patch management

This is perhaps one of the most impactful KPIs, not only because it’s so important in protecting the enterprise, but because it’s a constantly moving target (NIST’s National Vulnerability Database boasts greater than 17,000 submitted CVEs just this year). The vast majority of data breaches (upwards of 90%) leverage exploitation of a known vulnerability.

An effective vulnerability management program should involve scanning to identify new vulnerabilities in their infrastructure on a regular basis. KPIs around this can include the number of existing vulnerabilities discovered in the organization over the reporting period, categorization by CVE, how quickly they are patched after discovery, and graphs that linearly show reduction in vulnerabilities over time.

Cyber incidents

A risk register that tracks every incident in the organization, its severity, the resolution, and lessons learned is a must. Raising awareness to incident quantity, associated impacts to the business, efforts to determine root cause, and mitigations are essential.

Many organizations lack even a fundamental classification system that is well understood across the company. Socializing with executives the incidents from the last reporting period reinforces a shared understanding of what constitutes a Level 1 versus a Level 4 incident, the organization’s expected response, who should be notified, etc. A KPI review keeps these classification systems top of mind and also improves overall organizational readiness when new incidents occur.

Employee training

Performance metrics can include the progress of employee training and awareness campaigns, structured training (online and in-person), initiatives that focus on core concepts (such as thinking before clicking, or how a clean desk is a cybersecurity priority), or the lessons learned from a recent tabletop exercise.

All make for great topics of discussion with executive stakeholders. Many organizations get fun and creative in this area, coming up with security mascots or even inter-business unit competitions.

Getting started

For organizations that are early in the KPI development journey, a great launch point is a Balanced Scorecard. This innovative approach to change management helps:

  • clarify vision, mission, and strategic themes
  • gain alignment and buy-in
  • break through organizational silos
  • define key objectives, initiatives, and success metrics
  • inform dashboard content

Initially designed by Dr. Robert Kaplan and Dr. David Norton for performance management, this framework can be valuable tool for a security team to organize their strategy and distill out simple measures of success. 

Cultivate curiosity 

Perhaps the best value of a KPI review is the simple act of cultivating curiosity. KPI reviews are an opportunity for executives to question the what and the why; to inquire more deeply. Provoking curiosity inherently creates focus, attention, and concern. Cultivating it is one of the powerful catalysts a security team can use in maturing cybersecurity program.

Many technologists, buried in complexities of engineering solutions and securing bits and bytes, underutilize this simple strategy to keep their priorities top of mind with business leaders. Cultivate curiosity, generate questions, and watch investment in your ideas and programs grow.

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