If you’re not yet using a risk register, you’re putting your company at, well, risk. The world of commerce is full of dangers, traps, pitfalls and potential risks that can sink a company. From trade wars to global pandemics, companies have been forced to adapt to new and novel business conditions like never before.
Cybersecurity is one major area of concern that businesses big and small are now scrambling to address. In fact, with over 42% of the American workforce working from home on a now-permanent basis, cybersecurity concerns like informational integrity and data protection are very much top of mind for cybersecurity leaders.
Identifying, analyzing and quantifying these cybersecurity risks is the first step toward developing an effective plan of action that proactively prevents, rather than reactively mitigates, the myriad cybersecurity threats assailing businesses today.
To help with the enormous task of quantifying and addressing cybersecurity threats, businesses, both small and large, should start with a fundamental but essential IT security tool: the risk register.
What is a Risk Register?
A risk register is simply a centralized risk management document that includes information on potential cybersecurity risks that could threaten a project’s success, or even the business itself. However, risk registers are far more than just a means of recording information.
Many top IT professionals and cybersecurity experts treat risk registers as an important project management tool that can be used to prevent, respond to and mitigate cybersecurity attacks.
Risk registers typically contain a wide range of useful information on known cyber risks, as well as risk mitigation strategies and prescriptive action plans for dealing with both known and unknown threats.
Specific information contained within a risk register can include the nature of a particular risk, a detailed description, level of concern and the persons responsible for managing that particular risk.
For example, one risk every business faces is the threat of a data breach. A risk register will note the threat of a data breach as an overarching risk, along with listing potential causes, such as compromised credentials, potential vectors and phishing emails, and the likely outcome of such an event, such as the loss of customer data and consumer trust.
A risk register will then rate this threat based on the estimated impact on the business, the chance of that particular threat occurring and the potential cost in dollars or person-hours to rectify.
Finally, the risk register will also outline a detailed mitigation plan and assign the management of each risk to an individual IT staff member or third-party managed IT services provider.
Ultimately, a risk register is a project management tool designed to facilitate a fast, seamless and accurate response to cyberthreats as they occur, thereby neutralizing risks outright or mitigating the overall damages.
Why Do Businesses Need a Risk Register?
Documenting security risks is the first step to any successful IT security strategy, and can even be an important first step in ensuring the security and success of individual projects.
A risk register acts as a central ledger to document all known and perceived cybersecurity risks that could derail your project, or impact your business as a whole.
The importance of a centralized database of cybersecurity risks cannot be overstated. A risk register provides organizations with a single repository and point of reference to identify cybersecurity threats, note the history of those threats and even provide possible solutions and detailed risk commentary.
For example, a well-maintained risk register may note when a risk event first occurred, how it was resolved and who was assigned to deal with it.
Not only does this practice of in-depth record keeping allow your IT and cybersecurity team to carefully track threats over time, but it also provides a library of important contextual information and mitigation strategies that can be readily accessed. Careful record keeping via a risk register prevents potential security problems from becoming real security problems.
Of course, risk identification is only the first of a three-piece risk management puzzle. The next step is to analyze and categorize each identified threat by priority. Risk registers are incredibly useful for cataloging threats. However, they are also an indispensable tool for identifying which threats to address first.
A library of information is useless if there isn’t a way to sort the information by relevance. Risk registers grade and sort cybersecurity concerns based on their potential impact on the business, allowing IT professionals to better direct firm resources toward tackling the most pressing threats first.
Finally, risk registers provide solutions and risk management strategies that can be readily deployed in a risk event scenario. Most organizations will run into the same or similar risks on many of their projects.
A risk register provides relevant solutions and preventative measures applicable to all projects of a similar type, operational profile or execution process. That means each project team isn’t starting from scratch with each new project, or reinventing the wheel each time when it comes to cybersecurity.
It is useful to think of your risk register as a kind of knowledge arsenal that contains important instructions on overcoming known threats, addressing potential blind spots and avoiding common pitfalls.
Advanced risk registers may even employ predictive algorithms that can foresee and preempt future risks on new projects. In this way, risk registers can act as an analytical tool that can closely monitor and track risks, and prevent them from derailing your business endeavors.
Risk Register How-To: Steps for Building Your Own Risk Register
Tools required: Excel (or Google Sheet)
Time required: 1-2 hrs
There are three steps to creating a strong risk register:
Step One: Risk Identification.
Step Two: Risk Analysis.
Step Three: Risk Response Plans.
Step One: Risk Identification
The first step is to create a list of potential cybersecurity risks that your business or project may face. Include both problems that have occurred in the past, and speculative issues the team may face going forward. Your risk register need not be 100% comprehensive from the start. A risk register is very much a living document to which you can add newly discovered or newly encountered risks as time goes on.
Common identifiers in a risk register include:
Risk profile description
Attack vector (i.e., email, hacking, etc.)
Assigned IT staff member (or third-party managed IT services provider)
Pro tip: There are a number of online templates available for use as a starting point for your risk register. However, never rely solely on a generic template. Effective risk registers are customized to the individual needs of your business.
Step Two: Risk Analysis
The next step is to provide more analytical data and information to help your team contextualize the risks in question and assess their overall threat to your project or business.
Common categories included as a part of risk analysis:
Probability of occurrence
Threat level to the business or project
Potential impact of an occurrence
Descriptive consequences of an occurrence
Difficulty in addressing said risk
For example, a data breach that occurs due to compromised credentials may be marked as having a high probability of occurring, being of a high threat to the project, with potentially devastating results, including a loss of sensitive project data and damaged client relationships.
Credentials security can be easily addressed through multifactor authentication and basic password protection.
Step Three: Risk Response Plans (Response Roadmaps)
The final part of any effective risk register is a series of prescriptions, responses, recommendations and remedies that can be deployed to address a particular risk.
A mitigation activities log that keeps track of which strategies have been successful will go a long way towards identifying successful mitigation strategies and avoiding unsuccessful ones.
Common categories included as a part of the mitigation component:
Description of mitigation strategies
Probability of recurrence after mitigation
Cost of mitigation
Parties or staff assigned to mitigation
Together, these three components of a risk register provide the data, analysis and remedies necessary to deal with threats and ensure that your business or your project will not be derailed by a cyberattack or lapse in information security.