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Policies, Procedures and Plans – Defining the Language of Your Organization

Good Practices Are Not Enough

When it comes to IT security, more than one CEO running a small organization has told me they have really good people taking care of “all that.” These CEOs choose to believe their people perform good practices. That may be true, but who defines good practices and how they administer them? And when? If “security is everyone’s job,” then nobody is responsible for getting specific things done. Good practices require consistency, and consistency requires structure.

From an audit perspective, a control not written down does not exist. Why? Because it can’t be tested, measured, or validated. An IT Auditor can’t assess controls if they were never defined. Verbal instruction carries by far the most risk. “I told him to do that,” doesn’t pass the smell test in court.

Why Does it Matter?

Because it’s not IT’s job to write policies. Their job is to implement IT decisions made by management. They’re not at the right level to make decisions that impact the entire organization. Why should small organizations concern themselves with developing policies and procedures? Here are two very good reasons:

1. Regulatory Requirements
2. Lawsuits

No matter how small your organization, if you have a corporate network (even cloud-based) and you store credit card transactions, personal health information, client financial information or valuable intellectual property, being aware of state and federal regulatory requirements for protecting that information is vital. It is the responsibility of management to research and develop a management framework for addressing risk.
Lawsuits happen when information is stolen and/or employees are terminated for inappropriate activities. If you have no policies that mandate what is and isn’t acceptable, and what the penalties are for violations, your terminated employee has grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit: policy should not be written by the IT Department.

If confidential data you are responsible for is stolen and clients sue you, standing up in court and saying “We don’t have any written policies or procedures,” is a sure way to have both significant financial losses and a negative impact on your reputation. For a small organization, that could mean going out of business.
Even if data is stolen from a third-party vendor who stores your data, your organization owns the data and is responsible for ensuring the data is secure with the vendor and meets organizational requirements. Do you have a vendor management policy? If you work with vendors, you need one.

Consider, too, that every organization expects to grow its business. The longer management doesn’t pay attention to policies and procedures, the more difficult it becomes to develop and implement them.

Medium and Large Organizations Need to Pay Attention, too

A policy document provides a framework for defining activities and decision-making by everyone in the organization. A policy contains standards for the organization, and outlines penalties for non-performance. The organization’s management team or board of directors must drive their creation.
Policies also maintain accountability in the eyes of internal and external stakeholders. Even the smallest organization wants their customers and employees to have confidence the organization is protecting important information. By defining the necessary controls for running business operations that address risk and compliance requirements (and reviewing them annually), your management team demonstrates a commitment to good practices.


Procedures are the “How”

Procedures don’t belong in a policy. Departments need to be able to design their own procedures to meet policy requirements and definitions. HR will have procedures for employee privacy and financial information, finance must manage credit card, student, banking or client financial documentation, and IT will need to develop specific technical procedures to document their compliance with policy.
If all those procedures are in a policy, it makes for unwieldy policy documents that management must review and approve. Departments need to change and update their procedures quickly in order to remain effective. For example, a policy may mandate the minimum number of characters in a password, but IT needs to develop the procedures to implement that requirement on many platforms and devices.

What is a “Plan” Used For?

Consider that organizations commonly have a Business Continuity Plan as well as an Incident Response Plan. How is a “plan” different from a policy or procedure?

A plan (for example, an Information Security Plan, or Privacy Plan, etc.) is a collection of related procedures with a specific focus. I have seen these collections called “programs,” but most organizations use “plan” (plus, the Federal government uses that term). The term “program” implies a beginning and an end, as well as tending to be a little too generic (think “School Lunch Program”).

Three Ways Not to Develop Policies, Procedures and Plans

1. Getting templates from the Internet. Doing a Google search delivers an overwhelming number of approaches, examples and material. Policy templates found online may not be applicable to your organization’s purpose, or require so much editing they defeat the template’s purpose. 
2. Alternatively, going to organizational peers can endlessly replicate one poorly developed approach to documentation.
3. Writing policies and procedures totally focused on meeting one regulatory requirement frequently necessitates a total re-write as soon as the next regulation comes along.

Consider the Unique Aspects of Your Organization

What electronic information does your organization consider valuable? During an assessment with a state university, we discovered that the farm research the agriculture school was performing was extremely valuable. While we started out with questions about student health and financial information, the university realized the research data was equally critical. The information might not have federal or state regulations attached to it, but if it is valuable to your organization, you need to protect it. By not taking a one-size fits all approach to our assessment, we were able to meet their specific needs.

Multiple Departments or Locations? Standardize.

Whether your organization is a university, non-profit organization, government agency, medical center or business, you frequently have sub-entities. Each sub-entity or location may have different terms for different functions. For example, at a recent engagement for another university, Information Security “Programs,” “Plans” and “Policies” meant different things on different campuses. This caused confusion on the part of all stakeholders. It also showed a lack of cohesion in the approach to security of the university as a whole. Standardizing language is one of the best ways to have everyone in the organization on the same page, even if the documents are unique to a location, agency or site. This makes planning, implementation, and system upgrade projects run more effectively.

Demonstrate Competence

No matter what terms your organization chooses, using consistent terms is a good way to demonstrate a thoughtful approach. Everyone needs to be talking the same language. Having documents that specify management decisions provides assurance to internal and external stakeholders. Good policies, procedures and plans can mean the difference between a manageable crisis and a business failure.

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