Stop Band-aiding your Cyber risk strategy with training

It wasn’t too long ago that sophisticated executives could have long, thoughtful discussions on technology strategy without even mentioning security. Today, companies have substantial assets and value manifested in digital form, and they are deeply connected to global technology networks – even as cyber attackers become ever more sophisticated and adaptable to defenses.

At most companies, boards and senior executives acknowledge the serious threats that cyberattacks pose to their business. What they are not sure of is how to create a strategy that helps them understand and address the threats, in all their forms, today and in the years ahead. And they’re asking for such a strategy every day.

Increasingly, the online world has grown complex and threatening. Many organizations are finding it hard to reconcile the level of their cybersecurity innovation investments with the cyber resilience outcomes for their business. Even worse, choosing the wrong strategy to invest in cybersecurity technologies can cost the organization far more than wasted cash; it can damage an organization’s brand, reputation, and future prosperity.

Both C-suite and security professionals should feel encouraged. Investment in innovation is increasing and managing the basics appears to be better. But scratch below the surface and there are hidden threats. Organizations face unsustainable costs, and security investments are often failing for the majority. With low detection rates and slow recovery times, it is important to find out what the leading organizations are doing differently to achieve cyber resilience. The good news is that most organizations, on average, spend 10.9 percent of their IT budgets on cybersecurity programs.

Leaders spend slightly more at 11.2 percent which is insufficient to account for their dramatically higher levels of performance. And their investments in advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning or robotic process automation, are rising substantially. Today, 84 percent of organizations spend more than 20 percent of their cybersecurity budgets on tools that use these three technologies as fundamental components. The finding represents a good step up from the 67 percent being spent three years ago. The increase is even more impressive with respect to the leaders. Three years ago, only 41 percent of leaders were spending more than 20 percent of their cybersecurity budgets on advanced technologies. Today, that has doubled, to 82 percent.

At first glance, the basics of cybersecurity are improving and cyber resilience is on the rise. The latest research in the market shows that most organizations are getting better at preventing direct cyberattacks. But in the shape-shifting world of cybersecurity, attackers have already moved on to indirect targets, such as vendors and other third parties in the supply chain. It is a situation that creates new battlegrounds even before they have mastered the fight in their own backyard.

At the same time, cybersecurity cost increases are reaching unsustainable levels and, despite the hefty price tags, security investments often fail to deliver. As a result, many organizations face a tipping point. There is good news for organizations wondering if they will ever move beyond simply gaining ground on the cyber attacker. Analysis by Accenture reveals there is a group of standout organizations that appear to have cracked the cybersecurity code for innovation.

The BBC recently reported that researchers have discovered major security flaws—which affect flood defenses, radiation detection, and traffic monitoring—in the infrastructure for major cities in the United States and Europe. Of those flaws, nearly ten are deemed “critical,” meaning that a cyberattack on these systems would have a debilitating impact on essential infrastructure, including power grids, water treatment facilities, and other large-scale systems. It seems like the stuff of disaster films: A major city loses power. Huge amounts of the population panic. The roads clog. Planes are grounded. Coordinating a rescue effort— even communicating with the public—would be a colossal task.

Detailed modeling of cybersecurity performance has identified two distinct groups: the first an elite group—17 percent—that achieve significantly higher levels of performance compared to the rest. These organizations set the bar for innovation and achieve high-performing cyber resilience. The second is the group forming the vast majority of our sample—74 percent—who are average performers, but far from being laggards in cyber resilience. This second group has lessons to learn from leaders while leaders, too, have further room for improvement.

Being innovative in security is different from any other aspect of the business. Caution is necessary. After all, a fail-fast approach is not an option for security where attack vulnerabilities could be catastrophic. Growing investments in innovation illustrate organizations’ commitment to prevention and damage limitation. And it is here that leaders excel. By focusing on the technologies that provide the greatest benefit and sustaining what they have, they are finding themselves moving fast and first in the race to cyber resilience.

What is one key to secure innovation?

Companies are using all kinds of sophisticated technologies and techniques to protect critical business assets. But the most important factor in any cybersecurity program is trust. It undergirds all the decisions executives make about tools, talent, and processes. Senior business leaders and the board may see cybersecurity as a priority only when an intrusion occurs, for instance, while the chief security officer and his team view security as an everyday priority, as even the most routine website transactions present potential holes to be exploited.

Leaders now show us that they scale, train and collaborate more. So, while non-leaders measure their success by focusing on the destination— improved cyber resilience—the leaders focus on how to get there using warp speed to detect, mobilize and remediate.

IBM Survey: Pandemic-Induced Digital Reliance Creates Lingering Security Side Effects” – IBM, 15 June 2021.
Individuals created 15 new accounts on average during the pandemic, with 82% reusing passwords across accounts. According to the report, user behavior showed strong preferences for convenience outweighing security and privacy concerns, leading to poor choices around passwords and other cybersecurity behaviors. This lax user approach to security, combined with rapid digital transformation by businesses during the pandemic poses a big risk to companies and provides attackers with further opportunities to propagate cyberattacks across industries. These poor personal security habits carry over to the workplace.

RockYou 2021: largest password compilation of all time leaked online with 8.4 billion entries” – Cybernews, 7 June 2021.
A massive 100 gigabyte text file containing 8.4 billion entries and passwords that was combined from previous data leaks and breaches was published on a popular hacker forum.

Hackers Breached Colonial Pipeline Using Compromised Password”Bloomberg – June 4, 2021.
Investigators suspect hackers got the password from a dark web leak. Hackers gained entry into the Colonial Pipeline networks through a dormant virtual private network account that was no longer in use at the time of the attack but could be used to access their network. This account’s passwords have been leaked with a batch of other passwords on the dark web. This account also used a simple username and password without any other means for authentication. The hackers also stole nearly 100 gigabytes of data which they threatened to leak if the ransom wasn’t paid. This hack caused a shutdown of the pipeline causing a fuel crisis on the East Coast. This shutdown lasted more than a week.

“SolarWinds hack was ‘largest and most sophisticated attack’ ever: Microsoft president” – Reuters, 14 Feb 2021.
The SolarWinds attack Hackers compromised a routine software update that gave them access to potentially up to 18,000 companies and government institutions globally. The hackers roamed around the networks of these companies for nine months before they were finally discovered. It will take months to identify the compromised systems and shut down the breaches. The breach of customer systems came through a small software vendor in the supply chain.

The above is just a couple of the recent examples of cyber breaches, from very sophisticated breaches such as the SolarWinds breach to less sophisticated breaches causing weeklong shutdowns in the Colonial Pipeline example. The hacks and breaches are becoming more frequent and more costly as attach surfaces are growing across the full supply and value chains of companies.

52% of email users failed to detect an actual phishing email. GreatHorn survey, September 2020.

Looking at these large-scale breaches, and trends that the attack surfaces are now extended throughout a companies’ supply and value chains, this puts companies at increased risk and it is clear that there is still a lot more work to be done when it comes to Cyber Risk management.

Yet, most companies still rely on the basis of employee training on phishing, basic pen testing, updating and creating more policies, more training on the policies, and some aspects of multi-factor authentication and VPN’s to try and secure the companies’ information systems.

Why do most companies still think this approach is enough and the responsibility of the IT and the Risk teams in the organization?


With the increased risk of the business being shut down for days and weeks on end due to ransomware attacks, stricter data privacy legislation and resulting fines, the cost to the business when an attack happens can potentially cripple the business for years to come or potentially shut the business down.

So, what do companies need to look at or change?

Let’s look at this question based on the current top trends around Cyber Risk to companies.

  • Ransomware continues to be one of the top threats to companies. The predominant way hackers gain access is still through phishing and simple password access. Operational processes of on- and off-boarding of employees, vendors, contractors across the company’s business network become critical. This requires a review of all digital touchpoints of all users across all systems in the company and reviewing if the security technology in place addresses the risk sufficiently. The fewer manual processes to manage digital credentials across all these touchpoints, the better. Multi-factor and zero-trust-based authentication is a must and all simple username and passwords credentials usage need to be eradicated across all systems.
  • Supply Chain attacks are growing and increasing the risk of attacks through a vendor or partner’s system that is integrated into the company’s information systems. This requires a cyber approval plan and constant auditing of the vendor and partner systems as it relates to all the digital touchpoints of their software or systems into the company’s networks and information systems.
  • The way we work has changed with a larger remote work force whose home networks and systems are outside the “Secure” corporate environment creating a higher risk of hacker access through unsecured wireless networks. The user behavior changes of more lax approaches to security and data privacy require more training and awareness and the potential deployment of additional security technologies to provide better security to the remote worker’s home networks. This also will require a review of the company’s overall policies on bring-your-own-device, employee conduct and how to govern employee behaviors. Security has now also become an HR matter.
  • Stricter compliance. The SolarWinds attack prompted new US government legislation and requirements being drafted with stricter compliance and standards around investigations of cyber events and standards for software development for companies dealing with government institutions. Companies will require CMCC (Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification) control standards for companies working with Government institutions in the US. This model encompasses multiple domains, processes for each of these domains, capabilities and practices that measure a contractor’s capabilities, readiness and sophistication in the area of cybersecurity. New compliance standards will drive up the cost of doing business in much bigger ways than what Sarbanes Oxley has done for corporate financial reporting.
  • Stricter data and privacy legislation with more punitive fines. This requires a full evaluation of data vulnerabilities throughout the company as well as the company’s supply chain and coming up with clear plans and strategies on how to mitigate these.

Cyber Security is no longer just a “nuisance” add-on or cost. It needs to form a clear part of a company’s strategy and has become a key cornerstone in the Digital strategy of the company.

With the dawning era of The Internet of Things (IOT), cybersecurity affects the entire business model. Adequately addressing the threat means bringing together several business perspectives – including the market, the customer, production, and IT. Most often, the CEO is the only leader with the authority to make cybersecurity a priority across all of these areas. We believe that the issue of cybersecurity in many cases will require senior executive or even CEO initiative.

It is time to re-draw plans based on zero trust security principles and establish clear frameworks from the top down throughout all groups of the organization for monitoring, controlling, detecting, mitigating and responding to the increasing cyber threat.

As we have discussed earlier, as soon as one breach avenue has been foiled, attackers are quick to find other means. With the growth in indirect attacks, the spotlight falls on protecting third parties and other partners. But there are enormous challenges in managing third-party cyber risks. Large volumes of data can overwhelm the teams responsible for managing compliance.

The complexities of global supply chains, including the regulatory demands of various regions or countries, add to the strain. In our experience, many CISOs feel that the sizable number of vendors outstrips their capacity to monitor them. Given finite security resources, there is value in a data-driven, business-focused, tiered-risk approach to secure the enterprise ecosystem. This may mean introducing managed services to help the organization tackle the wider scope and scale.

By collaborating more broadly with others with the common goal of securing the enterprise and its ecosystem, organizations can not only play a responsible role in helping their smaller partners to beat cybercrime, but also they can be sure they are not bolting the front door from attackers while leaving the back door wide open.

A core group of leaders has shown that cyber resilience is achievable and can be reproduced. By investing for operational speed, driving value from these investments, and sustaining what they have, they are well on the way to mastering cybersecurity execution. Leaders often take a more considered approach to their use of advanced technologies by choosing those which help deliver the speed of detection and response they need to reduce the impact of cyberattacks.

And once they do decide to invest, they scale fast—the number of leaders spending more than one-fifth of their budget in advanced technologies has doubled in the last three years. The combined result is a new level of confidence from leaders in their ability to extract more value from these investments— and by doing so, exceed the performance levels of the non-leaders.

With two out of five cyberattacks now indirect, organizations must look beyond their own four walls to their broader business ecosystems. They should become masters of cybersecurity execution by stopping more attacks, finding and fixing breaches faster and reducing breach impact. In this way, they can not only realize security innovation success but also achieve greater cyber resilience.

Finally, cybersecurity remains much talked about, yet underleveraged as a differentiating factor on the business side. With the advent of the IoT, there is a real opportunity to move ahead and designate the security of products, production process, and platforms as a strategic priority. The breadth of the challenge spans the entire supply chain and the whole product lifecycle and includes both the regulatory and the communication strategy. For CEOs in leading IoT and Digital organizations, we believe cybersecurity should be at the top of the agenda until rigorous processes are in place, resilience is established, and mindsets are transformed.

As Stephane Nappo, Global Head Information Security for Société Générale International once said:

“The Internet of Things (IoT) devoid of comprehensive security management is tantamount to the Internet of Threats. Apply open collaborative innovation, systems thinking & zero-trust security models to design IoT ecosystems that generate and capture value in value chains of the Internet of Things.”


This article is the expressed opinions and collaboration between two senior-level industry board professionals on their views and perceptions on the subject matter:

MARIA PIENAAR CTIO, Corporate Innovation, Digital Transformation, Investor Private Company Board Director & Advisor Maria propels growth by speeding up discovery for companies whose leaders are frustrated by the slow pace of innovation.

Being a master networker, she extracts strategic value through tapping the latent creativity of teams and customers and catalyzes partnerships with highly innovative organizations. Her diverse leadership roles in global 100 and startup companies enable her to see the end-to-end picture and plot the most effective course for designing, launching and scaling new products and services for companies, driving customer growth. Maria co-founded Blue Label Ventures, a Corporate VC focussing on investments in Digital Health, IOT, Cyber Security, Fintech (incl. InsurTech).

Prior she was CIO at Cell C, a challenger mobile carrier, and prior held various leadership roles in Business Development, Go-to-Market Strategy, Strategic Partner Management and Product Marketing for Lucent, Nokia, Vodafone, Globalstar and various startups. Maria holds a BSC in engineering.

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Geoff Hudson-Searle is an independent non-executive director across regulation, technology and internet security, C-Suite executive on private and listed companies, and serial business advisor for growth-phase tech companies.

With more than 30 years’ experience in international business and management. He is the author of five books and lectures at business forums, conferences and universities. He has been the focus of TEDx and RT Europe’s business documentary across various thought leadership topics and his authorisms.

Geoff is a member and fellow of the Institute of Directors; associate of The International Business Institute of Management; a co-founder and board member of the Neustar International Security Council (NISC); and a distinguished member of the Advisory Council for The Global Cyber Academy.

He holds a master’s degree in business administration. Rated by Agilience as a Top 250 Harvard Business School thought leader authority covering blogs and writing across; ‘Strategic Management’ and ‘Management Consulting’, Geoff has worked on strategic growth, strategy, operations, finance, international development, growth and scale-up advisory programs for the British Government, Citibank, Kaspersky, BT and Barclays among others.

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