Controls-Based Versus Risk-Based Cybersecurity Programs

2 minute read

August 2023

In the face of an escalating regulatory burden and increasingly common data breaches, many teams are being pushed to mature from a controls-based to a risk-based approach to cybersecurity. While this pressure presents new opportunities for teams to more directly address risk and prove their value to executive leadership, it is also a significant demand: not only must cybersecurity professionals make major changes to their risk management methodology, they must also learn and adopt a new way of looking at cybersecurity. This blog will cover the difference between controls-based versus risk-based cybersecurity approaches and the benefits of making the transition. 

The controls-based approach is a common starting point for developing teams because the wide field of available control frameworks provide a strong backbone for a new program. Teams that choose this methodology review the available frameworks until they’ve found the one that’s right for their organization and its regulatory requirements then implement the appropriate controls until they’ve come into compliance. This methodology is popular because it allows less mature teams to achieve a baseline “best practice” program without escalating their project to the point that it becomes unwieldy.  Still, this approach has considerable limitations: because your team is checking the box on a premade framework, there’s the possibility that you’ll miss key risks that are specific to your organization. 

Key features of controls-based cybersecurity:

  • Program started recently 
  • Uses cybersecurity frameworks as foundation 
  • Helps achieve “best practices” 
  • Collects risk data in an ad-hoc fashion 

By contrast, the risk-based approach takes a more active role in identifying the risks that would most likely disrupt critical business processes and planning actions to mitigate that possibility. Where a controls-based approach depends on a given framework to cover all your risk areas, teams that take the risk-based approach act directly to more effectively reduce the risks your organization faces. This has the added benefit of making it easier to defend your program to executive leadership: it’s good to argue that your team has maintained compliance using a well-chosen cybersecurity framework, but it’s exceptionally convincing to call out the specific risks you’ve prevented and the potential cost of letting them go unaddressed. 

Key features of risk-based: 

  • Program has had time to mature 
  • Addresses risk directly 
  • Justifies itself to leadership using metrics 
  • Collects risk data programmatically 

Making the transition from the controls-based to the risk-based approach can be a daunting task, but a strong cybersecurity platform can make it much easier. With its configurable reporting functionality and risk register, ProcessUnity for Cybersecurity Risk Management empowers your team to track the risks facing your organization, plan mitigation efforts according to a color-coded heatmap and communicate your posture to the board. To learn more about risk-based cybersecurity, read our new white paper, “Mature Your Cybersecurity Program from a Controls-Based to a Risk-Based Approach.” 

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ProcessUnity is a leading provider of cloud-based applications for risk and compliance management. The company’s software as a service (SaaS) platform gives organizations the control to assess, measure, and mitigate risk and to ensure the optimal performance of key business processes. ProcessUnity’s flagship solution, ProcessUnity Vendor Risk Management, protects companies and their brands by reducing risks from third-party vendors and suppliers. ProcessUnity helps customers effectively and efficiently assess and monitor both new and existing vendors – from initial due diligence and onboarding through termination. Headquartered outside of Boston, Massachusetts, ProcessUnity is used by the world’s leading financial service firms and commercial enterprises. For more information, visit