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Cloud Security: Article

What the Business Doesn’t Know Will Hurt

Part 1 | IAM and compliance with federal and industry regulations

Imagine you work at a company preparing to issue its quarterly earnings report. The phone rings. It's bad news. A coworker has discovered that a former employee has been logging into the company's network for months. It's unclear whether the former employee has used this illicit access to make any buy-loss orders without proper authorization, but the damage has been done. The company is required to force the release through the business channels, halt its stock sales and make the dreaded phone call to the SEC alerting them to the possibility of insider trading. The company must announce its report before it's ready, and is forced to absorb any market blows that result.

Who's watching the shop?
Most of a company's line of business (LOB) or human resources (HR) leaders are not tasked with worrying about identity and access management (IAM); that is, the processes by which employees are granted access to company systems when they are hired and removed from those systems when they leave. Yet the business must absorb the consequences of failing to control access to company systems. The mentality of "don't want to deal with it, just address the immediate issues," while common, isn't enough.

Increasing numbers of regulations increase the chances that an instance like the one above will occur. The business might prefer to push IAM responsibility over to another department (like IT), yet when accidents happen, the business is left holding the bag. To truly prevent access breaches from occurring, LOB leaders and HR must take an active role in IAM.

LOB Leaders' IAM Responsibilities
The LOB leaders include the heads of an organization's finance, marketing, sales and operations departments. The role of the LOB leaders in the IAM process includes:

  • Deciding which team members should have access for what programs
  • Reviewing and certifying access periodically
  • Defining policy and access roles for team members
  • Approving and rejecting access

LOB Leaders' Business Pains
LOB leaders have one of the most important roles in IAM: determining who gets access to what. However, in traditional IAM systems, there's not a unified identity repository that tracks all that information. Instead, LOB leaders must undergo a burdensome periodic overhead and certification review, wherein they must review a sheaf of systems access reports from IT and attest that the information is correct. Oftentimes, extra help must be brought in to review the reports at a cost.

HR Leaders' IAM Responsibilities

The HR department is up close and personal with employee data, and is tasked with several high-profile responsibilities within the IAM process, including many onboarding and offboarding tasks. The role of HR leaders in the IAM process includes:

  • End-to-end onboarding and offboarding
  • Registering employee data
  • Tracking personnel performance
  • Ensuring employees have the tools and support necessary to do their jobs
  • Recruiting
  • Talent management
  • Management coaching and training
  • Employee retention programs and performance incentives
  • Ensuring current employee information and employee record maintenance

HR Leaders' Business Pains
HR leaders often find themselves grappling with an IAM conundrum. They are responsible for onboarding and offboarding-related IAM tasks, yet completion of those tasks requires HR leaders to chase down an assortment of contacts from different departments for help in getting new employees setup with account access, desks, telephones, building cards and IDs and other necessary items.

In a perfect world, HR would want to minimize the currently disjointed fulfillment task process that hobbles progress toward actually being able to train new people. Getting these processes under control and in one centrally-managed system will generate a huge amount of value for HR. With a centralized, automated IAM platform, companies can drive a huge amount of efficiency, train people more easily, make onboarding better, make retention better and retain better talent.

The IAM checklist
What are the first questions that LOB leaders and HR should ask themselves?

  1. Quantifying the exposure to risk: how much is at stake if a breach occurs?
  2. Which employees have access to what information?
  3. How much access does each type of employee have? Is that access ad hoc or role-based?
  4. Are there controls in place to prevent a breach from occurring?
  5. If not, are there alerts in place that notify the business that a breach has occurred?
  6. Which departments have an ownership stake in IAM within the organization? What are their roles? What information do they own?
  7. Are there any processes already in place that determine what level of access to give to an employee? If so, are these processes invisible or are they burdensome?
  8. Does the IAM platform have analytics in place to identify and track these access levels throughout employee churn?

Collecting the information to answer these questions provides LOB leaders and HR with an excellent starting point for identifying what improvements need to be made to the company's IAM strategy.

Simplify, simplify, simplify
Step one is to simplify the IAM structure as much as possible. If the company is able to get creative with its IAM processes, it can streamline and reduce the number of procedures needed to monitor access rights. A simplified IAM platform is not just "nice to have," it is absolutely critical. By encouraging LOB and HR leaders to seize an ownership stake in IAM by making it as simple as possible, the company is helping ensure the long-term success of its IAM strategy.

There are a number of ways that a simplified approach to IAM helps the entire organization. An uncomplicated strategy makes it easier for the IT department to quantify the level of risk, helping bring LOB leaders and HR in as full partners in the IAM process. Rules are defined that automatically set the level of access provisioned to each employee. Because access rights are set by rules instead of by an ad hoc checklist, the company is liberated from having to audit access all the time, saving time, money and annoyance.

Below are some steps LOB leaders and HR can take to simplify IAM processes:

  1. Have a checklist in place to step through the division's existing IAM processes. (The questions earlier in the article are a good place to start.)
  2. Centralize as much of the IAM infrastructure as possible. If all company divisions - business, IT, HR and compliance - are using the same platform, it's less likely for access violations to slip through the cracks
  3. Put in appropriate controls that provision the same levels of access to groups of similar employees. Lose the ad-hoc approach.
  4. Automate continuous, proactive oversight and accountability over all different areas.

Once the LOB and HR divisions have identified the benefits they can gain from a simplified approach to IAM, the next steps are to put the strategy into place.

In the next part of the series, we will discuss how IT can take steps to empower LOB leaders and HR in the IAM process.

Conclusion
LOB leaders and HR should demand better processes from their organizations' IT departments. A fully revamped and simplified IAM process will change the way the company does business for the better. A centralized, automated approach eliminates re-keying, reduces onboarding costs to the tune of millions, improves employee retention and improves dozens of other training and management processes that ultimately contribute to a better organization. In addition, business leaders are leading the charge toward a transition to cloud services. That means that any IAM vulnerabilities must be fixed before the move to cloud, or risk improperly-offboarded employees retaining access to critical data weeks or months after they were let go.

The benefits of a unified IAM platform - increasing efficiency and compliance with regulations - are clear. Once LOB leaders and HR have taken a snapshot of the company's existing IAM plan, they can begin taking steps to turn it into a well-oiled machine that will benefit everyone.

More Stories By Jay O'Donnell

Jay O’Donnell is the CEO and founder of N8 Identity and spearheads the continuing development of N8 Identity’s industry-leading solutions. One of the early pioneers of the identity and access management (IAM) industry, he initially founded an IAM consulting business in 2000. After overseeing dozens of large-scale IAM projects, he led the development of Employee Lifecycle Manager® in 2007 to meet the need for a software solution that delivered pre-defined identity and access processes throughout the lifecycle of a user within an organization. Jay is an internationally recognized expert in information security, compliance, identity management, federated identity and directory services.

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