A Guide to IT Risk Assessments

by | Feb 16, 2024

With everything from cybersecurity threats to simply forgetting to install the latest software patch, a wide range of IT issues happen regularly. Brand damage, industrial sabotage, and IP theft rank among the top 3 IT concerns businesses have. Like most IT issues, those are best countered by being proactive, since acting after an incident doesn’t prevent the damage already done. That’s why IT risk assessments play a critical role.

What Is an IT Risk Assessment?

An IT risk assessment is a process that identifies, evaluates, and prioritizes the risks to a business’s information technology. It involves uncovering potential issues, assessing the impact and likelihood of risks, and determining how to solve them best. Periodic reviews help discover any changes and ensure everything meets the latest standards.

Understanding the Value of IT Risk Assessments

IT risk assessments are essential to maintaining reliable and secure IT systems. They help prioritize security measures and resources to the highest-need areas. And if shortcomings are discovered, they act as an early warning system. That allows IT teams to make improvements before problems can happen. By helping minimize downtime, an IT risk assessment can help pay for itself.

Not only are they beneficial for improving day-to-day functions, but they’re also needed for IT compliance and incident response plans. These evaluations help prioritize security measures, allowing for better use of technology resources and budget. By highlighting potential issues, IT risk assessments enable smarter and more proactive decision-making.

How a 9-Step IT Risk Assessment Is Done

Different types and lengths of IT risk assessments cater to business needs, IT compliance, and the industry they’re in. That means not every process will look the same. Below, we’ll summarize what a 9-step IT risk assessment can look like, as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends.

    1. System Characterization: This step involves defining and documenting the system’s boundaries, resources, and functionality. It sets the foundation for the risk assessment by understanding what needs to be protected.
    2. Threat Identification: Here, potential threats to the system are identified. Those can be natural, human-made (intentional or unintentional), or technical vulnerabilities that could be exploited.
    3. Vulnerability Identification: This involves identifying weaknesses within the system that threats could exploit to cause harm or unauthorized access to information assets.
    4. Control Analysis: Examines existing security controls and measures to determine their effectiveness in mitigating identified vulnerabilities and protecting against threats.
    5. Likelihood Determination: Assesses the probability that a given threat will exploit a system’s vulnerability, considering the effectiveness of current measures.
    6. Impact Analysis: Evaluates the potential consequences and impact on the organization if a threat were to exploit a vulnerability, affecting the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of information.
    7. Risk Determination: Combines the likelihood of threat occurrence and its potential impact to determine the level of risk posed to the system.
    8. Control Recommendations: Based on the risk determination, this step involves recommending additional security controls or adjusting existing methods to counter identified risks.
    9. Results Documentation: The final step involves documenting the assessment, findings, recommended controls, and decision-making processes for accountability and future reference.

While the NIST-800 approach outlined above was initially designed for government use, it’s become a best practice standard for many IT companies. That means organizations across education, healthcare, finance, and more all commonly use similar processes. Ultimately, an IT risk assessment aims to help minimize risks, ensure everything is running well, and stay a step ahead of cybersecurity threats.

Key Factors Influencing Assessment Frequency

Several factors determine how often your organization should conduct an IT risk assessment. These ensure that your risk management practices are aligned with your business needs, regulatory obligations, and evolving digital threats.

Internal Processes

  • Adapting to New Technologies and Threats: Organizations need to stay vigilant as technology advances and cyber threats evolve. The pace at which new software, hardware, or cyber threats emerge should guide how frequently you assess your IT risks. 
  • Protecting Valuable Data: Different data have different values. Information like customer data or financial records is susceptible and requires more frequent monitoring to ensure security. Think of it as putting your most valuable possessions in a safe; you’d probably check on them more often.
  • Ensuring IT Compliance: IT compliance regulations, such as NIST-800, HIPAA, and PCI, often dictate how often you need to perform IT risk assessments. It’s important to review any industry-specific guidelines with your IT team and schedule them regularly.
  • Understanding Your Risk Comfort Zone: Every organization has its own level of comfort with risk. If you prefer to play it safe, you’ll likely want to conduct frequent risk assessments to catch and address potential issues early.
  • Evaluating Your Security Measures: The strength of your organization’s security policies and procedures can also influence how often you need to reassess your IT risks. Stronger security might mean you can go longer between checks, while weaker security requires more frequent reviews.

External Factors

  • Learning from Others in Your Industry: Keeping an eye on industry standards and practices can help you gauge how often you should conduct IT risk assessments. Issues others are having may impact your own business.
  • Managing Third-party Relationships: If your organization relies on vendors or third parties with access to your systems, you’ll need to assess risks more frequently. It’s akin to having guests in your home; you’re more cautious about your belongings.
  • Responding to Past Security Issues: If you’ve experienced security breaches or incidents in the past, it’s a sign that you might need to increase the frequency of your IT risk assessments to prevent future occurrences.
  • Navigating Organizational Changes: Events like mergers or acquisitions can introduce new risks to your IT environment. These changes require a closer look at your systems to ensure everything integrates smoothly and securely.

Resource Management

  • Balancing Resources and Needs: The availability of skilled personnel and budget affects how often you can realistically conduct IT risk assessments. It’s crucial to balance being thorough and using your resources best.
  • Weighing Costs and Benefits: It’s also crucial to consider the cost of performing these assessments against the benefits they bring, such as improved security and compliance. That is about investing wisely in your IT risk management efforts.
  • Staying Flexible: Finally, the ability to adjust the frequency of your risk assessments based on changing internal and external factors ensures that your organization remains resilient against IT challenges.

By focusing on these key areas, organizations can better understand and manage IT risk assessment scheduling complexities. That enhances security and compliance while also supporting efficient use of time and resources.

Events That May Require an IT Risk Assessment

Understanding the role of IT risk assessments is crucial. This section outlines situations that require immediate and detailed review of a company’s IT risk status. These scenarios are vital for keeping operations secure and compliant as we navigate an environment filled with evolving threats and constant changes.

  • Security Breaches or Incidents: Immediate action is required when a breach occurs to assess damage, identify vulnerabilities, and prevent future incidents.
  • Major Technological Changes: Technology changes can introduce unforeseen risks, such as having an unexpected interaction between a new device and an old piece of software.
  • Regulatory Changes: Updates in IT compliance regulations require a swift review to avoid legal and financial repercussions. Assessments should be scheduled ASAP after new law changes.
  • Discovery of New Vulnerabilities: Identifying new threats, especially zero-day exploits, requires an urgent evaluation to safeguard against potential attacks.
  • Significant Organizational Changes: Mergers, acquisitions, or structural changes can significantly alter risk profiles, requiring a prompt risk reassessment.
  • Industry-Specific Threats: Security incidents within similar organizations or industries signal a need for immediate risk analysis to prevent similar vulnerabilities.
  • Significant Loss of Data or System Availability: Events leading to data loss or system downtimes are critical for an urgent risk assessment to mitigate impacts and restore operations.

These triggers emphasize the importance of proactive IT risk management. They highlight organizations’ need to stay alert and responsive to secure operations and ensure compliance amidst changing regulations and emerging threats.

How Often to Schedule IT Risk Assessments

If everything is going smoothly, there haven’t been any recent changes or events, and it’s not a heavily regulated industry, then once a year is a good baseline. That’s frequent enough to detect issues proactively without spending too much time or resources. Even if it’s only done annually, staying consistent with scheduling them is crucial.

For organizations that deal with stricter IT compliance laws, such as healthcare or some types of tech companies, then bi-annually or even quarterly may be best. Anyone who handles high-value personal data is at risk of cyberattack. Breaches are often discovered after the fact, meaning IT risk assessments play a critical role in detecting vulnerabilities early.

Larger businesses and enterprises may also need IT risk assessments bi-annually or quarterly. The more moving parts a company has, along with the higher employee and customer counts, the harder it is to keep everything in check. That means mistakes and oversights are more likely to happen, which increases the chance of an IT incident.

And as discussed, any time there’s an impactful event or a major concern, it’s worth doing an early IT risk assessment to address that. Being proactive and taking a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach can help keep your organization protected and running at its best.

Outsourcing Is an Easy Way To Get an IT Risk Assessment

While there are a lot of benefits to assessments, many organizations still don’t do them or delay them far longer than they should. 41% of businesses say time commitment is the biggest obstacle to doing IT risk assessments, while 37% note they lack the personnel to do it. Fortunately, a simple solution to that problem is outsourcing the evaluation to a third-party MSP. They have the time, personnel, and experience to handle them and can work with any in-house team to ensure they get the needed feedback.

Whether doing IT risk assessments internally or with a third-party partner, make sure to do them at least once a year. Cyber insurance is also beneficial for added peace of mind, especially since plans already require regular assessments. Your business is valuable, and preventing IT incidents before they happen is the best way to stay safe and profitable.

If your business needs an IT risk assessment or needs help with something else, reach out to us via our contact form or call us at: +1 (800) 297-8293

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