Making Metrics Matter to the C-Suite

Phil Gardner of IANS explains why security needs to rethink metrics and leave the IT-centric focus behind

Too many information security executives struggle to sell their metrics efforts to the C-suite.

What's the problem?

The way the information security industry currently thinks about metrics needs an overhaul.

We try to sell operational metrics when we should sell strategic metrics. But here's the deal: The C-suite listens and reacts only to metrics that mirror its own strategic goals for the organization.

[Security metrics: Critical issues]

Operational metrics are tools to assess the productivity of the information security team. Examples include: What was the average dwell time for a network intrusion? What is the patching status of our Korean servers? These metrics allow the CISO to determine how efficiently his or her team conducts its work.

Where information security gets into intellectual hot water is when we aggregate various operational metrics and attempt to interpret some broader significance from the results.

It doesn't work.

Cobbling together two or three metrics with some complicated algorithm yields generic answers that are neither actionable nor significant.

To build compelling C-suite metrics, we must leave our IT-centric focus behind and instead focus on the organization's initiatives. The CEO is measured on revenue growth and expense control, so our strategic information security metrics have to mirror these priorities.

We need to ask the questions: What are we trying to accomplish as a business? How do we make revenue grow faster, reduce costs, or both? How do our security efforts support these initiatives?

I'll give you an example from one of IANS' Fortune 1000 Decision Support clients. One of the corporations key initiatives was to increase revenue by opening new retail locations in underserved markets.

To demonstrate value to the C-suite, the information security team aligned itself with this business initiative. The CISO and his team built a series of metrics that showed how their activities were reducing the cycle time for new store launches. The takeaway was pretty clear —the faster a store comes online, the faster the corporation sees revenue and a return on this infrastructure investment.

By the way, this CISO didn't abandon his operational metrics program in favor of a more strategic position. Those metrics remained invaluable in measuring his team's performance. That's an important point to stress: There are operational metrics that are invaluable in measuring day-to-day performance. These are the metrics that allow you to know where you stand and how you are managing your infrastructure.

Ultimately, what I am proposing is two distinct sets of metrics. The first is a set of strategic metrics that CISOs can present to the C-suite. These should focus on how information security is directly helping revenue go up, costs go down, or both. The second set should be operational metrics that help you run your department. Don't confuse the two and dont try to make one into the other.

Why has this thinking not taken root? The answer, I think, is primarily a cultural one —we are much more comfortable with technology than business. However, if we want the C-suite to listen to concerns about information security, weve got to change.

[The Great IT Risk Measurement Debate]

It requires going outside our comfort zones and seeking out business leaders. We need to create relationships and understand what's important to the organization. Then we need to figure out how information security supports and drives the overall business initiatives. This is not going to be an easy task, but the CISOs that have made this transition have seen great success in their security programs, particularly with funding.

The members of the C-suite may not understand the intricacies of your security program, but they do understand that security matters. They know they need to spend money on security. When you can take security and link it to a revenue-generating opportunity or a cost-reduction opportunity —allowing the initiative to be done more safely, more securely, more quickly, or all of the above —that's a huge win.

Phil Gardner is the co-founder and CEO of IANS, a provider of in-depth security insights and decision support delivered through research, community and consulting.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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