RSA blog: Risk analysis vs. assessment: understanding the key to digital transformation

When it comes to looking at risks, many corporate IT departments tend to get their language confused. This is especially true in understanding the difference between doing risk analysis, which is the raw materials that is used to collect data about your risks, with risk assessment, which contains the conclusions and resource allocation to do something about these risks. Let’s talk about the causes, challenges and why this confusion exists and how we can avoid them as we move along our various paths of digital transformation.

Part of this confusion has to do with the words we choose to use than any actual activity. When an IT person says some practice is risky, oftentimes what our users hear is us say is “No, you can’t do that.” That gets to the heart of the historical IT/user conflict. We must do a better job of moving away from being the “party of no” to understanding what our users want to do and enabling their success. This means if they are suggesting doing something that is inherently risky, we have to work with them and guide them to the more secure promised land.

IT also has to change its own vocabulary from techno-babble to start talking in the language of business – meaning talking about money and the financial impacts of their actions — if they want the rest of the company to really grok what they are talking about. Certainly, I am not the first (nor will I be the last) person to say this. This is a common complaint from David Froud when he talks to the C-suite: “If I can’t show how a risk to the assets at my level can affect an entire business at theirs, how can I possible expect them to understand what I’m talking about?”

Certainly, it isn’t just proper word choice, and many times users don’t necessarily see the risky consequences of their actions – nor should they, that really isn’t part of their job description. Here is a recent example. Look at this Tweet stream from SwiftOnSecurity about what is going on in one corporation. Their users pick evergreen user ID accounts for their VPN signons. Rather than have unique IDs that match a specific and actual person, they reuse the same account name (and of course, password) and pass it along to the various users that need access. Needlessly risky, right? The users don’t see it quite in this light. Instead, they do this because of a failure for IT to deliver a timely solution, and one that is convenient and simple. I imagine the thinking behind this decision went something like this:

IT person: “You have to use our VPN if you are going to connect to our network from a remote location. You need to fill out this form and get it approved by 13 people before we can assign you a new logon.”

User: “Ok, but that is too much work. I will just use Joe’s logon and password.”

Granted, IT security is often the enemy of the convenient, and that is a constant battle – which is why we have these reused passwords and why our adversaries can always rely on this flaw to infiltrate our networks. The onus is on us, as technologists, to make our protection methods as convenient and reduce risk at the same time.

There are some bright signs of how far we have all come. In the second Dell survey of digital transformation attitudes, a third of the subjects said that concerns about data privacy and security was their biggest obstacle towards digital progress. This was the top concern in this year’s survey – two years ago, it was much further down the list. Fortunately, security technology investments also topped the list of planned improvements in the survey too. Two years ago, these investments didn’t even make the top ten, which gets to the heightened awareness and priority that infosec has become. Nevertheless, half of the respondents feel they will continue to struggle to prove that they are a trustworthy organization.

So where do we go from here? Here are a few suggestions.


As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, Understanding the Trust Landscape, RSA CTO Dr. Zulfikar Ramzan advocates replacing the zero trust model with one focusing on managing zero risk.” That is an important distinction and gets to the reworking towards a common vocabulary that any business executive can understand.


Second, we must do a better job with sharing best practices between our IT security and risk management teams. Many companies deliberately keep these two groups separate, which can backfire if they start competing for budget and personnel.


Finally, listen carefully to what you are saying from your users’ perspective. “Technologists show up with a basket of cute little kittens to business leaders with a cat allergy,” said Salesforce VP Peter Coffee. Think carefully about how you assess risk and how you can sell managing its reduction in the language of money.

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