Leveraging holistic GRC for compliance and audit preparation

Governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) is often treated as a separate entity from security. But compliance experts know that the two are hopelessly intertwined — after all, what’s the point of a security control if it isn’t directly tied to mitigating a risk? Regulatory frameworks and compliance standards provide externally vetted guidelines and internal governance standards provide a targeted measuring stick against which organizations can evaluate their security capabilities, allowing them to gauge their ability to defend against today’s most pressing threats. What’s more, they can help leaders on the business side of the enterprise better understand why certain solutions and policies are necessary.

But not all risk programs are created equal — and not every organization recognizes the critical role that GRC plays alongside departments like security, legal and business operations. Too many businesses remain unnecessarily siloed, with individual departments pursuing the goals they believe are best for them — without understanding how they fit into the organization as a whole. The approach might result in some short-term wins, but it’s rarely a recipe for long-term success. Organizations need to be able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. A holistic approach to GRC can allow organizational leaders to better understand how their decisions will impact the organization’s overall risk profile — and, ultimately, determine whether those decisions are in the best interest of the business.

What holistic GRC means, and why it matters

Today’s organizations collect a significant amount of data, and they use that data to inform a wide array of business decisions. A lot of the data involves GRC — either directly or indirectly — but it also tends to be spread across multiple solutions, applications and platforms. Data access restrictions also limit who can work with that data, which can lead to communication silos where different departments have competing priorities that negatively impact the wider organization. Failing to aggregate that data so it can be viewed in the proper context means organizational leaders won’t see the big picture.

This creates inefficiencies within the organization. For example, the compliance team may believe they need a specific security solution in order to meet the requirements outlined in a certain framework. But they may not realize that the security team has already implemented a different solution that achieves the same result. Or they may not recognize that implementing their chosen solution will negatively impact the sales team by implementing cumbersome new data access restrictions. Holistic GRC isn’t just about looking at risks themselves — it’s about understanding what those risks mean for the business. That includes identifying the potential downstream effects that might result from addressing those risks. Purchasing a redundant security solution is likely a small problem. But grinding the sales team to a halt might be a bigger one.

What makes holistic GRC notable is that it can adapt to the organization, rather than the other way around. That’s important, because different organizations have radically different regulatory and compliance needs, and approaching a SOC 2 audit requires a different approach than, say, adhering to GDPR or CPRA data privacy regulations. But by approaching GRC in a holistic manner, organizations can better understand where their risk management program currently stands and how it will be affected by changes in the future.

Holistic GRC best practices

Gathering data is nothing new for organizations, but those that want to shift toward a more holistic approach to GRC can start by finding ways to integrate that data. It’s important to have a platform to view security controls, compliance needs, incident reports, policy information and other relevant information in a dynamic way. What organizations need more than anything is a way to view the relationships between different data sets in a responsive, real-time way, allowing them to better understand how changes within one area can affect the others. That solution might come in the form of a GRC platform, or the organization might choose a different, homegrown method of data integration — no matter how they accomplish it, the ability to easily visualize wide ranging data from across the organization is essential.

At its most basic level, understanding risk comes down to gauging how likely an event is to happen and what the potential impact of that event would be. Eliminating 100% of risk is impossible, but holistic GRC can help organizations better understand where their bases are well covered and where their most worrying gaps exist. This contextual data around the risks or gaps ensures that when communicating those risks upwards you have all the data to answer the hard questions you’ll inevitably receive. In addition, being able to map those risks to controls to policy statements to testing makes sure the risk mitigation plans are operating effectively. This is extremely helpful in circumstances like a SOC 2 audit. The SOC 2 framework is more concerned with outcomes than specific solutions, which means organizations enjoy a fair amount of latitude in terms of how they can approach compliance. As long as the organization can demonstrate how the spirit of the control maps to the letter of the control to the implementation, the auditor should be satisfied — which means the ability to clearly visualize and illustrate risk across the organization is extremely valuable. An effective holistic GRC program can help organizations demonstrate to auditors how they are approaching different aspects of compliance quickly and easily, without the need for cumbersome manual processes. 

On the flip side, holistic GRC can help organizations better understand what they need to do in order to comply with those frameworks and regulations that do have specific requirements. After achieving alignment with SOC 2 guidelines, a business may decide to enter a new international market that requires ISO 27001 certification. Because the two frameworks have significant overlap, an organization that leverages holistic GRC should have an easy time identifying which elements they are already in compliance with and which they still need to prioritize. The integration of security data, compliance data, cloud policies and other relevant information means organizations can more easily visualize where they stand in relation to different regulations, audit requirements and other benchmarks.

In addition to helping with compliance frameworks and audits, holistic GRC can serve as an important business enablement tool. At its core, GRC is about gauging risk — and understanding risk is at the core of making important business decisions. Plugging variables into a holistic GRC solution can help businesses better understand the downstream effects of certain actions or decisions. For example, it isn’t just important to know what steps the business needs to take to become ISO 27001 compliant — it’s important to know how much those steps will cost, and how that number stacks up against what the organization stands to gain and if/how that impacts the organization’s risk profile.

If achieving ISO 27001 compliance will be simple and the new market is a rich one, the decision should be relatively easy. On the other hand, if reaching (and maintaining) ISO 27001 compliance will take a substantial effort and the potential gains are marginal, the business might ultimately decide it isn’t worth the risk. Holistic GRC gives organizations the ability to consider compliance and security-based decisions in a business context, allowing them to make more informed decisions. That means limiting and avoiding risk, yes — but it also means understanding when some level of risk is worth the potential gain. Risk is a factor in every decision a business makes — but holistic GRC makes that risk easier to measure, understand and evaluate.

Using holistic GRC to speak the language of business

Perhaps the best thing about holistic GRC is the way it enables organizations to enjoy a real-time snapshot into their security and compliance posture, allowing them to more effectively measure how changes to their risk profile will affect the organization. Compliance audits and security evaluations are a fact of life for today’s businesses, and the ability to quickly and easily demonstrate adherence to different regulations and frameworks means the organization doesn’t have to invest significant resources and manpower into manual processes. What’s more, it allows the organization to evaluate its risk profile using the language of business, making it clear how different decisions impact not just one area of the business, but the organization as a whole.