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Five Pillars of a Powerful Security Awareness Program

It seems that we might be getting to the tipping point in the corporate world where most organizations and businesses recognize they’re exposed to an increasing amount of cybersecurity risk. 
 
And with bad guys devoting a large portion of their strategy to targeting employees, the need for effectively training employees is intensifying. But before you begin to evaluate or build a program you need to first define and cement what it is you are looking to accomplish with your program.
 
So with the goal of preparing employees to protect themselves and their organization from cybersecurity threats, let’s dive into some areas you can evaluate to determine how powerful your security awareness program can be.

5 Necessary Components of a Security Awareness Program 

1. Comprehensive Training 

In every good recipe, you need to know which ingredients are the staples that cannot be changed. For analogy purposes, I’m going to reveal an old family recipe. It’s a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The ingredients are peanut butter, jelly, and bread. If it’s missing any of those pieces it is not a complete PB&J sandwich. 
 
Likewise, there are few staples you always need to include when building out a powerful security awareness program. They are:
 
A) Compliance training
 
B) Security education
 
C) Phishing simulation
 
Let’s break down each of these components and see why they’re so important.

Compliance Training

Compliance training should be in place to cover important topics with employees on a periodic basis that may fall under regulatory requirements. This involves lessons paired with acknowledgement of policies, procedures, or employee practices that do not change frequently or lend themselves to deeper dives into the subject matter. 

Security Education

Security education is more than phishing. It is the proactive teaching and training of employees to spot dangerous attacks, improve their cyber hygiene, and learn all about cybersecurity best practices. It’s essential education in the form of videos, interactive lessons, quizzes, and more— always with the goal of keeping security top of mind. 

Phishing Simulation

Today’s phishing simulation tools are a powerful way to train your employees on what to look out for in their in-box, while gauging their performance over time in how they respond. Typically, when used correctly, they help employees greatly improve their ability to spot potential phishing threats and improve their cyber hygiene. 
 
However, be careful; this is where detours too often take place. “I need to challenge my people” is an all-too-common mantra among security awareness program administrators. It often means the goal of educating employee takes a backseat to tricking and defeating them in a phishing “game.”
 
It takes a lot of time to produce tricky phishing simulations and as a result the administrator spends no time educating their employees. And so, the employees are only tested. 
 
Let's look back at a timeless classic for an example. Mr. Miyagi didn’t just take an untrained Daniel LaRusso and send him to fight Johnny Lawrence over and over, hoping someday Daniel would magically do a Crane Kick on his own. Sending out phishing simulations without any education is exactly like sending someone into a fight they haven’t prepared for knowing full well they are going to fail. 
 
Instead, you need to be sure that your security awareness program is well-balanced with compliance training, security education, and phishing. 

2. Effective Content

Once upon a time, security awareness training was bland, boring, infrequent, painful to watch, and painful to administer. 
 
Luckily, that’s no longer the case. While in many cases content is more entertaining than ever before, to engage learners it must also be timely and relevant. This helps establish credibility with your audience and ensures they stay informed with up-to-date information. 
 
To be most effective, your security awareness program needs to implement an ongoing cadence that always presents fresh content. In fact, science researchers found that the most effective way to help people learn is to engage with them more than once a month. (Otherwise, they forget almost everything they learn. Ebbinghaus) 
 
Most important, at the end of each training session an employee should have more confidence in their ability to not only recognize threats, but also have greater confidence in their ability to respond to them appropriately. 
 
Employee looking at their laptop smiling.
 
Confidence in this area increases their ability to be a security leader in their space. Confidence in their ability to recognize and react to threats gives them the ability to think on their feet and apply what they’ve learned in other situations. This means in team meetings, selection committees, or project launches, employees will keep security top of mind protecting themselves and their organization when even new policies or procedures are put into place. 
 
Knowing which threats are the most dangerous or areas where your organization is most exposed and filling those gaps quickly with education helps elevate the security of your employees and organization in a more strategic fashion.  
 
Threat intelligence helps you to see where the biggest gaps and most potent attacks are so you can educate and defend against them. 

3. Incredible Experience 

Have you ever tried to complete a task on your computer only to be faced with not knowing where to go, not being able to login, having to reset your password, or the reset password not showing up in your email? 
 
I could go on and on about how inefficiencies or lack of positive user experience will lead to people giving up. And employees are even more likely to give up on completing a task if they see it as a low priority. 
 
Security awareness is not everyone’s primary job function. As a result, your security awareness program must deliver a smooth, efficient, and engaging user experience. The process must be as seamless as possible if the program hopes to enjoy a high rate of participation.  
 
When you provide employees with an incredible experience, you're letting them know how important cybersecurity is to the organization. It shows employees that security awareness is now part of the broader company culture and helps ensure they pay greater attention and improve their cyber hygiene. 

4. Positive Reinforcement 

“Your people are your weakest link” 
 
This is a phrase that may be true but is one to discard immediately.
 
That’s because the people link will get significantly stronger with the right training. You want to create a positive environment for your security awareness program and give kudos to those who perform well in their training, while offering encouragement to those who may struggle to get them to continuously improve.   
 
Simply, security awareness programs that are put into place that talk down to people or consider people their weakest link are never going to win over their employees to participate and engage with their content.
 
Think about how successful a teacher would be if they got up to the front of the room at the beginning of a semester and said, “Hey all of you are failures who don't know anything. Now we're going to take a test and you're all gonna fail. After you fail, I’m going to make the next test even harder so you'll fail that one too.” 
 
Obviously, that teacher is setting up their students to fail. But walking around your organization looking over people's shoulders, trying to find their shortcomings so you can embarrass them or ridicule them will absolutely kill any progress toward being secure. Calling people your weakest link won’t start things off on the right foot.
 
Just remember: Your employees were hired for a reason—they're good at their jobs. The whole team is in this together and you must trust them to perform well during their cybersecurity awareness training.
 
After all, the one thing most likely to hold them back is a program that isn’t up to snuff. 
 
Manager talking with an employee in front of a laptop.

5. Rely on Experts 

Successful organizations focus on what they do well and put employees in positions to succeed. Security awareness training involves a great deal of managing and administering, and it’s likely you won’t have the right staff in place to launch and maintain a program successfully. 
 
Just because we can handle a variety of tasks doesn’t mean we should do so. 
 
For example, Harrison Ford was a cabinet maker before becoming a successful actor, but he set that career by the wayside to accelerate his path to becoming a Hollywood star. Now, this advice doesn’t often show up in cybersecurity blogs, but “Follow Harrison’s example.” Just because you’re able to do something doesn’t mean you should spend your time doing it. This is a powerful epiphany in multiplying your impact. Having the wisdom to say ‘no’ to certain tasks, so you can make greater use of your time. 
 
Don’t delay the progress you make in your company’s security journey by trying to tackle something for which you’re not equipped. 
 
Find a vendor with security awareness training expertise who can successfully run and implement a program that engages your employees, teaches them what they need to know, and provides excellent reporting to help you gauge your organization’s progress every step of the way. 

Build a Strong Foundation with Arctic Wolf

Are you ready to implement the five pillars of a powerful security awareness program? Build a strong foundation with Arctic Wolf Managed Security Awareness®, a fully managed solution guided by our expert Concierge Security® Team. Find out more now!

About the Author

Nathan Caldwell has been a marketing leader in the tech world for nearly 10 years. He served as the producer and head of video marketing for one of the largest MSP software companies, where he was a keynote producer and coached tech leaders in executive speaking. In his latest adventure, he helped create Arctic Wolf’s Managed Security Awareness solution. When not fighting cyber bad guys Nathan loves to speak about his book, Empowering Kindness, and enjoys taking his four kids to theme parks.

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