Risk management is critical to a business. We can find examples as far back as recorded history allows, with ship and cargo owners routinely taking up insurance to cover risky voyages. Risk grew as companies became more complex, and today’s risk manager must juggle many physical and esoteric risk considerations.

It’s tempting to mitigate risks by nailing everything down, but that isn’t a practical reaction for certain parts of an organisation. Today’s business risks are not just about preventing the negative but also supporting the positive.

Cyber risks are a perfect example. In an ideal world, a company would make its IT and data systems impenetrable. But employees, partners and customers need continual access to those resources. This tug-of-war between productivity and security is tricky to manage, and many risk managers find themselves outmanoeuvred by operational demands. Yet they are also at the forefront of helping make digital safe and practical for their businesses.

“Risk and IT professionals are converging around cyber risk,” says Lior Arbel, head of pre- and post-sales at Encore. “The IT guys understand the technical and process challenges of technology while risk managers translate much of that context for the business. For example, if a CFO weighs technology purchase decisions, they often take in the views of risk managers and as new technology regulations prompt more involvement from company leaders and boards, they also rely more on risk managers to add a business context.”

Risk is one of the ways a business strategically understands its technology. Yet grasping those risks is more often about complexity, Arbel explains.

“Companies are becoming very complex in how they operate and the environments they operate in. Risk management naturally rises to handle that complexity. Since digitisation introduces many new complicated relationships in a company, risk managers cannot avoid the topic. They have to be in the thick of it.”

The topic of cyber risk is complex and will occupy business theorists for decades to come. This article aims to answer a more straightforward question: how should risk managers think about cyber risk? What are the main considerations and red herrings? How would you know you’re mitigating cyber risk?

He outlines six areas that will help define cyber risk theory and practices:

  • The types of risk: Cybercrime is the most visible cyber risk. Hackers attempting to breach company systems and steal sensitive information require serious responses. But there are also other cyber risks, such as employee negligence, abuse of systems, infrastructure failure, and poor legal compliance. Though some of these have straightforward mitigation strategies, it’s important to understand that all cyber risk interrelates. Just taking care of one area, such as regulation, won’t be sufficient.
  • The types of damage: To create an overarching picture of how to rank cyber risks, start with the potential damage – how an organisation could be harmed most. Stolen data is often the biggest problem. It varies based on the type of data – customer, personal, operational, company IP, etc. Business continuity is another big concern: will a cyber incident stop employees, partners and customers from transacting, and for how long? System downtime is often the most costly part of cyber breaches or negligence. Regulations are the third primary consideration: what are the legal implications and fines resulting from non-compliance?
  • Who owns the risk: Many organisations are still uncertain about who owns cyber risk, or are unwilling to accept it’s no longer solely IT’s problem. Numerous laws, such as the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) and governance frameworks, such as King IV, place the responsibility on business leaders – the executives, C-suite and board. It’s not just a question of compliance. Technology is so intrinsic to modern business that leaders must accept technology as a strategic responsibility. It influences their costs, current performance, future investments, and the full gamut of strategic requirements: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
  • Identifying risks: There is no single or large act that will sweep across cyber risk. Instead, most such risks exist in specific areas of the business. For example, the storage, flow and access of Personal Identifiable Data (PID) creates a number of risks related to compliance, employee behaviour, access rights, infrastructure performance, and operational efficiencies. Yet there will be many overlaps – PID might transact on collaboration systems that also work with company IP data.
  • Mitigating cyber risks: You might be shaking your head: cyber risk is holistic and all-encompassing but also specific. Where do you start? The good news is that you can exploit overlaps in cyber risk. For example, focusing on PID risks will reveal risks in other areas that often benefit from the same mitigation strategies. Stricter access management of user accounts around PID can help reduce risks, as can meeting ISO/IEC 27001 compliance. Improving PID database infrastructure can also improve productivity for other types of data.
  • Create a cyber risk culture: A collaborative culture is essential to mitigate cyber risks. Risk managers and technology managers should work together to understand different dimensions of the problems and opportunities at hand. Employees must receive training to help avoid negligence. Companies should employ senior security managers, and if they can afford it, a chief information security officer (CISO). Crucially, the c-suite and board must have access to someone with security knowledge.