What is an Information Security Management System (ISMS)?

An ISMS, or ‘information security management system,’ takes a whole-organization, risk-based approach to information security that addresses people, processes, and technology.

An ISMS comprises a set of policies, procedures, and controls that aim to preserve three characteristics of information assets:

  1. Confidentiality
  2. Integrity
  3. Availability

You can also refer to these as the ‘CIA triad.’

In this blog

  • The benefits of an ISMS
  • How you can use an ISMS
  • The main elements of an ISMS
  • How to start implementing ISO 27001

What are the advantages of implementing an ISMS?

Here are just three benefits:

1. Proactively address data protection and cybersecurity

In today’s information economy, many of your most critical assets are probably in digital form.

This convenience comes with a downside: the cybersecurity risks that are a constant fixture in the news. In January and February 2024, the US alone saw more than 700 million records breached.

The data you hold is both valuable and potentially vulnerable.

You should therefore strive to protect it.

By taking a proactive approach to cybersecurity, you can protect your data and intellectual capital. Not to mention avoid the financial and reputational damages associated with a data breach.

Implementing an ISMS offers a particularly strong, proactive approach.

2. Meet legal and contractual requirements

When aligned to ISO 27001, your ISMS must identify relevant stakeholder requirements.

(ISO 27001 is the international standard that provides the specification for an effective ISMS. You can learn more about the Standard in this interview with ISO 27001 pioneer Alan Calder.)

Those requirements can include legal and contractual requirements such as:

  • The SEC disclosure rules
  • The CPRA (California Privacy Rights Act)
  • The EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation)
  • The PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard)
  • The NYDFS (New York State Department of Financial Services) Cybersecurity Regulation

An ISO 27001 ISMS takes a structured approach. It ensures you consider such requirements as part of your security objectives, and that you adequately address them.

3. Qualify for new business opportunities

A significant advantage of ISO 27001 is that you can achieve independent certification against it.

This offers clear proof that your ISMS is effective, and that you’re committed to data protection. Customers and partners always prefer to do business with organizations serious about cybersecurity.

Larger institutions in particular may even take things a step further. They may demand accredited ISO 27001 certification as a prerequisite to partner with them at all. This is especially true for government contracts.

So, if you’re looking for a competitive edge, consider implementing an ISMS and certifying it against ISO 27001.

It’s cost-effective, too. As Alan Calder explained:

ISO 27001 isn’t just a security investment. It’s a business investment with long-term business benefits that go far beyond preventing the bad press associated with a breach.

What are the main elements of an ISMS?

An ISMS has several core components:

Senior management support

Without support from senior management, any information security project – ISMSs included – will fail for two reasons:

  1. The ISMS will receive inadequate resource.
  2. Information security requires a top-down approach. People are a key ISMS pillar. If staff can see management not taking security seriously, they will, unfortunately, follow suit.

Documented policies and procedures

Processes are another pillar of any ISMS. You should document them, so staff can consistently follow them.

This also makes it easier to review and improve them, and offers useful evidence in an audit.

Continual improvement

Your documentation isn’t the only thing you should regularly review and improve – this goes for the entire ISMS.

The cyber threat landscape is fast-paced – almost like a cat-and-mouse game between attackers and defenders.

In other words, as one side improves, the other needs to as well.

So, regularly review your measures in line with your risks. Speaking of which…

Risk assessment and management

Information security risk assessment and management lie at the heart of any ISMS, particularly one aligned to ISO 27001.

After all, you need to know what your risks are before you can implement any measures.

A risk assessment also helps you prioritize your risks, so you can get the best return on investment from your defenses.

Also, in the spirit of continual improvement, make sure you regularly repeat risk assessments. This is the only way of making sure your security measures keep pace with the changing landscape.

How do I start ISO 27001 implementation?

Risk assessment is an excellent place to start. Again, if you don’t know what your risks are, how can you implement the right measures?

CyberComply simplifies compliance with a range of cybersecurity laws and standards, including ISO 27001.

This SaaS platform allows you to automate, review, and repeat risk assessments:

  • Reduce the time spent on risk assessments by up to 80%
  • Automate the creation of key documents for an ISMS
  • Take advantage of CyberComply’s built-in library of controls to treat risks

We originally published a version of this blog in 2018.