Wednesday, April 25, 2012

GRC for IT Architects


Governance Risk and Compliance (GRC) as most of you might know, is more than a catchy acronym used by IT and security professionals and in fact it is an approach or framework that an organization adopts to ensure proper management and control. 

The broader term Governance calls for a better way of managing the business, which includes protection of the assets of the organization (includes information as an asset), sustainability of the organization irrespective of the business or economic climate. Risks are the unforeseen events or forces which could potentially result in severe impact on the overall performance of the organization.  Better Governance cannot be achieved without a good risk management program in place. The risk appetite of an organization should be known to the stakeholders who should manage or control the risks, so that the risk exposure is well within the risk appetite. The term Compliance denotes the organization’s approach to being compliant with various legislative requirements of different countries in which it operates and also to comply with social commitments.

GRC exists at different levels, for instance Governance could exist at the corporate level, project level or at sub organization level. While the goals of the GRC at various levels will be the same, the means or techniques used to achieve it vary. 

As one could observe these three terms have inter-relations amongst each other and it’s for that reason, there is a need to have a 360 degree view of all these three together. GRC aligns various components of the enterprise (processes, employees, systems and partners) to be more efficient and more manageable leading to better business performance.

An organization is primarily comprised of People, Processes and Technology. The technology domain in turn is made up of Data, Applications and Infrastructure. The Corporate GRC goals can be met when these components are aligned to meet the respective goals.

Much of the risks that today’s organization is battling with are around Data and Applications used within and outside the organization. The IT Architects in turn play important role in designing the solutions involving data, applications and the infrastructure. Thus it is important for the IT Architect that the solution design process is aligned to the GRC framework of the organization.

Information Systems Audit and Control Association has recently released COBIT 5, which helps organizations to get more value from both information and technology investments. By approaching Governance, COBIT 5 helps maximize the trust in and value from organization’s information and technology. Let us go over some of the questions the stake holders would raise on the governance and management context of enterprise IT and see how it will be relevant for IT Architects.

How do I get value from use of IT? Are end users satisfied with the quality of IT?

IT investments are about enabling business changes and are expected to bring enormous value to the business. But 2 out of 10 enterprise IT projects are outright failures. Keeping a focus on the value delivery from proposal stage till delivery of the solution is likely to improve the chances of success. The Architects should establish the business value that the solution could bring, so that the stakeholders can make an informed decision whether to go ahead with the investment or not.

The perceived value out of IT investments is also dependent on user satisfaction on the service delivery using the solution. The usability should not be ignored for any reason by the Architects and to achieve this Architect should collaborate with target end users on a continuous basis to solicit and elicit feedback.

How do I manage performance of IT?

As businesses heavily depend on IT, the performance of IT to the satisfaction of business is important. Among various other reasons, poor or sub optimal solution design is a major cause for IT’s non performance. Here again, IT Architects have an opportunity to factor the best design practices and ability to generate appropriate metrics so that each of the IT services can be measured and monitored in terms of its performance.

How do I best exploit new technology for new strategic opportunities?

Information Technology is advancing in a faster pace, and the trends are shifting too frequently. Newer tools and technology frameworks that come into the market make enabling business changes more and more easier. This at the same time calls for the people’s abilities in mastering related skills. The Architects has to do a balancing act in not missing the opportunities that the newer technology and tools have to offer and at the same time should not risk the business by taking on such changes so early when skills to manage it is hard to get. Many a times, exploiting new technology ahead of the completion can spur business growth.

How dependent am I on external providers? How well are IT outsourcing agreements being managed? How do I obtain assurance over external providers?

Organizations are embracing cloud and started looking at SaaS applications as these offer a higher degree of flexibility in terms of investments and in terms of capabilities. This is happening though there exist quite many security and other compliance concerns that the industry is still trying to address. This resulting in more external vendors being engaged, calls for a well drafted SLA, which should be in line with the security and regulatory compliance needs of the organization. A careful evaluation of the product and the vendor is essential as it does not absolve the organization from this compliance needs.

What are the control requirements for information?

Information and data as assets are gaining significance and in the next few years, the ability to control and manage large volumes of data from discrete sources in an efficient and effective manner will be looked forward by almost all organizations. At the same time, data breaches are also on the rise and the information security practice is also drawing considerable attention from the CIOs. It is time that the CIOs or CSOs put in place an Information Governance program, identifying and classifying sensitive data and information and defining the control requirements around the same. This will require the all the applications be designed appropriately to have these control requirements implemented.

Did I address all IT related risk?

Risk is one of the important area to be managed well to minimize uncertainty and the associated impact on the business. Risk Management has to be practiced at every level including IT Architecture. IT Architects start risk management right from proposal stage to delivery and even after that. Lack of Risk Management skill amongst the Architects could itself be a risk.

Am I running an efficient and resilient IT operation?

With high dependence on IT, today’s enterprise needs an efficient, effective, secure and resilient IT infrastructure for its survival and success. This requires the sub systems of IT to be highly performing and at the same time architected in such a way to be flexible enough to accommodate changes to it. The Architects should always be willing to embrace change and make sure that the solutions that they design is receptive such changes.

How do I control the cost of IT? How do I use IT resources in the most effective and efficient manner? What are the most effective and efficient sourcing options?

The Architects who design IT solutions are not usually constrained by a budget, and so why in most cases the solutions designed are not necessarily a cost efficient one. Ideally, the Architecture team should consider better budgeting and estimation techniques and should be able to quantify the capital and operational costs, which allows the stakeholders to take informed decisions.

Do I have enough people for IT? How do I develop and maintain their skills, and how do I manage their performance?

Choosing the right tools and technology should also mean that availability of people in to manage and support it. Architects sometimes get carried away by the features and abilities of such tools and sometimes carried away or influenced by vendors and eventually end up in a situation where incurring huge cost in finding skilled people and retaining them. Architects should seriously consider the talents available in house and the availability of such skills in the market on demand, while making such choices.

How do I get assurance over IT?

Quite often, the IT is pulled in to diagnose the problem of an application coming down crashing. Teams like Developers, Architects, Network engineers, Hardware engineers, etc come together to trouble shoot the problem and come up with a corrective and preventive action. Every such instance throws a new root cause and the teams keep on learning out of such outages. But what the end user community wants is a stable and reliable system, which the business can depend on. While it is hard to rule out outages, there should be processes in place, which helps reduce the down times. The systems should be designed to being able to log information necessary for trouble shooting, raise alerts upon encountering exceptional conditions, factor redundancy in hardware and software components. Periodic audits and reviews should be carried out to ensure that the recovery measures put in place are working.

Is the information I am processing well secured?

With cyber security crimes on the rise, organizations are investing heavily on securing the data and information assets that are stored within and outside the organization. IT Security should be one of the key non-functional requirements that the Architects should consider while designing solutions. The significance of Security needs could vary based on the organization’s nature of business and the information being processed or stored. Many countries have pronounced legislations on security requirements for specific industries and specific class of data, which should be complied without exception. Here again, period audits and reviews would help assure about the IT security level to the stakeholders.

How do I improve business agility through a more flexible IT environment?

Agility is key to quickly turnaround business changes as solutions. Flexible IT enables the organizations to quickly capitalize on the new opportunities, to innovate and to get ahead of the competition. This saves time and increases efficiencies. Some of the key evaluation or design criteria to make this happen are:  shared / outsourced infrastructure, ability to scale up and scale out, reduced complexity, continuous data and application availability, built-in efficiency within every component, etc.

The above is not an exhaustive list to be taken care by the Architects. Most of the above would be addressed if one follows the best design practices considering all of the undocumented abilities (scalability, availability, maintainability, usability, etc.) required out of the solutions and applying the right design patterns.