The Hard Truth Around Cyber Security Awareness Programmes

The Hard Truth Around Cyber Security Awareness Programmes

5 key points to drive culture change around cyber security

Culture and governance are key to drive change around cyber security behaviours, but too many awareness programmes focus simply on superficial technical gimmicks. Let’s start by deconstructing 3 clichés which have been dominating the security awareness arena for the past decade.


Cliché #1 – Cyber Security is Everybody’s Responsibility

At face value, this is truly a very dangerous argument to manipulate. To answer it using another cliché, there is a fine line between something being everybody’s responsibility, and the same thing becoming nobody’s responsibility.

The key here is to acknowledge that while each employee may have a role to play in securing the firm’s assets, those roles do vary from function to function, and failure to communicate with each staff member in meaningful ways in the context of their own job will simply not work: Telling HR staff who receive CVs by email everyday not to open attachments is a waste of time.

Also, it is essential to acknowledge that the level of engagement of each employee around cyber security will depend entirely on the level of engagement the employee has with the firm, its culture and its values. It is a natural instinct to protect what you care about. Conversely, it can be a hard job to convince disengaged staff, or staff who see senior management constantly allowed to skip the rules, while they have to adhere to stricter measures.

So it may well be that in some form “Cyber Security is Everyone’s Responsibility”, but the message cannot be generic and has to be structured appropriately. In addition, the example has to come from the top and must be relayed without exception by all middle-management layers for the message of good practice to work through the fabric of the firm.

That’s often the most common flaw of many cyber security awareness campaigns: They are owned by the cyber security team and structured horizontally towards all staff, instead of being owned by a board member and structured to cascade vertically through line management. Ownership for Cyber Security has to start at the top. Period. One board member should be visibly in charge, and part of their compensation package should ride on it, as we advocated in an earlier article.

HR management should be involved as well, and they have a key role to play: Specific key responsibilities and accountabilities around cyber security should be distributed across staff members and articulated formally in role descriptions. Staff should be incentivised through compensation and by middle-management to address those aspects of their roles as an integral part of their job, not as a piece of meaningless management jargon.

Readers may think this is just idealistic and cannot work in most firms, because those layers of management simply would not be interested or would not understand cyber security sufficiently to articulate a meaningful vision around it.

They may well be right in many cases, but it is also the role of the CISO to stimulate, structure and support that type of engagement.

Of course, firms looking to engage in that type of top-down approach to cyber security awareness development will need to have the right CISO in terms of personal profile, personal gravitas and management experience, or may need to evolve their security organisation to bring in a broader CSO role.

Those necessary exchanges between the security leadership team and senior management will constitute a fundamental awareness programme just by themselves, but any security awareness development campaign can only be truly successful with a visible and credible board member as a figurehead.

If senior management – including HR management – or middle-management are not prepared to engage in a meaningful manner with the fundamental aspects of security good practice, any message anybody may try to drive towards the staff could simply prove to be an expensive waste of money.


Cliché #2 – People are the Weakest Link

They may well be, but the key is to understand why and how in the context of each firm, before jumping to ready-made solutions, in particular with tech vendors.

It has to start from a sound examination of the threats each business is facing. The insider threat may well be a widespread high-ranking business threat in financial services, not so much maybe in logistics or retail.

Of course, in all firms there will be people who have access to sensitive business information and may be tempted or coerced in certain circumstances to leak it out. But the key here is to understand and address their potential motivations in doing so.

Those motivations – quite often – will be rooted in corporate culture, management styles and governance problems. As many areas you are not likely to address through a “traditional” tech-focused cyber security awareness programme…

It is worth repeating this one more time: Staff will protect the firm with a natural instinct, if they care about it and share its values and its purpose – economically, and increasingly socially as well.

If that sense of care is not there, if the corporate or management culture is toxic, if employees don’t have a sense that they know where the business is going, either because it is not well managed, or because its industry sector at large is not doing well, a broader communication initiative addressing staff disengagement is required and specialised or siloed awareness programmes focusing simply on cyber security are not likely to succeed.

The key will be to bring staff onboard with a valid corporate purpose they can understand and endorse. The need to protect the firm in general as well as its information assets could be one aspect but immersed into a broader campaign aimed at developing a real sense of belonging with employees.

Here again, HR, corporate communications and senior management at large have a key role to play. One senior executive must visibly own and drive the initiative. Once again, this cannot be siloed and left to the CISO and their team.


Cliché #3 – This is all about “Awareness”

How can it be that some firms – and their CISOs – still believe that their staff – apparently – do not KNOW what to do to protect their organisation from cyber threats?

Many people – at individual level – have experienced fraud attempts or virus attacks; data breaches and cyber-attacks are constantly in the news, and many online platforms and service providers have strengthened considerably various of their security measures, for example around multi-factor authentication; increasingly, people are getting used to those additional layers of security in their everyday life.

More importantly, security good practices have been well established for 2 decades and have not evolved that much: “Don’t write down your password” meant the same 10 or 20 years ago…

And large firms have spent collectively hundreds of millions across the last 2 decades on so called “security awareness” programmes, not to mention governments and their agencies.

So where did it go wrong with those programmes?

The problem is that most of those – over time – have focused too much on making sure people simply KNOW what to do around security, and not so much in giving them incentives to ACT on it, or dealing with the roadblocks preventing staff from enacting good practice.

Just “knowing” what to do to protect your organisation is simply not enough; only the right actions and behaviours can protect the business, so “awareness” by itself is never going to be sufficient without incentives to act and – where necessary – culture change.

In addition, as detailed above, many of those programmes have often fallen short of expectations by being too generic and not rooted in the right cultural context.

Fake phishing campaigns are a good example of where it goes wrong: They have been all the rage for the past few years but often they contribute to the build-up of a “nasty” culture around cyber security: Employees feel tricked and embarrassed, and those are not emotions which are likely to build a favourable ground in which to root good security practices.

Sending random emails, forcing people to follow online training programmes, putting up posters or distributing mouse-mats may well put ticks in compliance boxes but what does that achieve in real life?

Success criteria (“What-Good-Looks-Like”) remain vague, qualitative or anecdotal in many campaigns (for those that are not designed as a pure box-checking exercise to address some cheap audit point)

That shouldn’t be the case, and as a matter of fact, the issue of metrics should be central to any cyber security awareness programme and built in from the start.

But it is a really difficult topic, which is why it is frequently side-stepped.

The only way to address this is a meaningful manner – for firms large enough to do this – is to fall back on traditional marketing and polling methods:

  • Build representative panels of employees across the firm
  • Measure their level of “security awareness” through questionnaires and interviews, in a structured way prior to launching the campaign
  • Design the campaign to be centred on key findings highlighted by panels and interviews, and deploy it
  • Measure levels of security awareness again and compare

Of course, as well as difficult, this may be expensive, and priced-in from the start, it may well push any programme out of an acceptable budgetary bracket.

But cutting out the metrics aspects – on grounds of costs – from a cyber security awareness programme should bring out a real management question to address: Is it worth spending large amounts on an initiative of that nature, knowing and accepting from the start that you won’t be able to measure its success quantitatively?


5 key points to build a successful cyber security culture change programme

In summary:

  • A board member must visibly own the campaign and act as a figurehead, with the involvement of HR, corporate communications and the cyber security team: It can only work top-down. Accountabilities and responsibilities around cyber security must be clear.
  • Stay clear of empirical and ready-made solutions: Start with focus groups, questionnaires and interviews and measure upfront levels of staff security maturity and engagement with corporate values.
  • Centre your campaign on the findings of the initial survey and define success metrics from the start based on measured maturity levels: Your scope may need to be much broader than just cyber security to deliver on staff engagement if initial levels are low.
  • Make the messages specific, achievable and rooted in the real life of each team, driven by line management, NOT the CISO and their team
  • Build incentives for staff to ACT: It cannot be just about TELLING people what to do


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