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Need to show ROI? Fasten your seatbelt!

Nothing can make a security pro's blood boil faster than three letters: R-O-I. But there are ways to lower the heat.

Nothing can make a security pro's blood boil faster than three letters: R-O-I.

Having to justify a security purchase as if it were a new payroll system is a losing battle. It's not unlike asking someone to justify fire insurance in the same manner as a new assembly line. It's the difference between protection and functionality.

Experts at the Information Security Decisions conference this week suggested alternatives to ROI for justifying security expenditures.

Mark Doll, a director of digital security services at Ernst and Young, suggested looking at communicating to executives how threats impact customers and cash flow. In other words, demonstrate how not having security would adversely affect the business.

Often, security managers talk with management about lower risk threats that can be justified via ROI because they think it will get them in their managers' good graces. "A CEO is not going to base a corporate strategy around patch management," Doll said.

It's the directors' and the CEO's job to determine what level of risk a company is willing to accept. It's then the security pro's job to figure out what to do to address that level of risk.

For example, a low-cost manufacturer may be willing to accept more risk because its business model is based on keeping all costs down. "That becomes part of its governance," Doll said.

By contrast, G. Mark Hardy, president of National Security Corp., suggested "return on seatbelt investment" (ROSI) as an alternative to ROI. This involves protecting against threats that have a low probability of occurring but would be catastrophic to the business. Executives are more mindful of such events in the post-Sept. 11 world. Such measures are like people wearing seatbelts. "When you need them, they are a good idea," he said.

Security pros need to make sure execs doesn't get the wrong idea. "Security is viewed as a protection racket by management," Hardy said. "They say, 'We'll get whacked if we don't.'"

Security can be positioned as an enabler for other IT projects. The ROI of a payroll system, for example, is dependent on systems and networks being up and running. "A project won't achieve its ROI projections if it's not secure. Management would get that message," he said.

That message reverberated with Todd De Ryck, a security professional with a Canadian financial services company. "Figuring the ROI for security is often too hard to pinpoint," he said at the conference. "I am looking for a different approach, such as looking at ensuring other enterprise applications do what they are supposed to."

Some companies are coming around to more novel justifications for security. "No, we don't have to do that [justify ROI]. Senior management has bought into security," said Mark Andrews, enterprise security architect, at Dallas-based utility company TXU. "They understand the other benefits of security."

Moreover, sometimes security professionals don't have to sell security because other factors will do the job for them. "Regulatory and federal compliance are the main drivers. ROI is not the biggest battle at all," Andrews added.

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