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Applying NIST CSF 2.0: Risk management vs. maturity assessments

Breaking down the two most common NIST cybersecurity framework approaches

Katrina Dalao
Sr. Content Marketing Specialist, CIPM, CIPP/E
March 6, 2024

IT worker examines a server rack with his MacBook.

Despite being a voluntary framework, The National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF) has been adopted by organizations around the globe, with an estimated 50% of U.S. organizations using the standard as of 2022.

The popularity of the NIST CSF lies in its flexibility and ease of use. It was designed to help any size organization better understand, manage, reduce, and communicate their cybersecurity risks. 

Its latest version, the NIST CSF 2.0, maintains this non-prescriptive and technology-neutral approach, while introducing additional guidance through profile templates, mappings, case studies, and other implementation resources. 

This enables the framework’s application across a variety of use cases, from refining and enhancing well-established risk programs to building new cybersecurity initiatives from the ground up.

The NIST CSF has two common applications: for cybersecurity risk management and as a cybersecurity maturity assessment. While there’s no right or wrong approach — each one can bring significant benefits — it’s important to distinguish between the two and determine which best fits your organization's broader cybersecurity goals. 

 

“The NIST CSF 2.0 is not just compliance; it's a strategy for digital survival. In a world where cyber threats are constantly evolving, it provides a roadmap for businesses to proactively manage risk, secure critical assets, and build a robust cybersecurity foundation." 

— Jitendra Juthani, OneTrust Director, GRC Labs, Product Management, Strategy & Ops

 

NIST CSF 2.0 as a risk management framework

The NIST CSF was originally designed as a cybersecurity risk management framework, introducing security standards and guidelines for reducing risks to critical infrastructure.

While the framework provides a series of outcomes to address cybersecurity risks, it doesn’t specify how these outcomes should be achieved. Instead, organizations can decide on their own methods and practices for adapting the framework to their own needs. 

As a risk-based framework, the NIST CSF 2.0 is intended to complement, not replace, existing cyber risk management processes. Here are key questions to help right-size the framework for your specific situation:  

  • Where does your organization operate and what legal and regulatory requirements apply?

  • What is your organization's threat and risk environment? 

  • What are your existing risk mitigation and management practices? 

  • How is risk considered within the organization’s overall strategy? 

  • How is risk communicated and reported to the organization? 

  • How are risks continually measured and monitored against your established framework? 

  • What are your organization’s mission, objectives, and constraints?

This information provides context to pinpoint an organization’s position along the Framework Implementation Tiers — Partial, Risk-informed, Repeatable, or Adaptive — and determines how closely an organization's cyber risk management aligns with those defined in the framework. 

 

Infographic showing the four Framework Implementation Tiers.

Original image from the National Institue of Standards and Technology (NIST).

 

However, risk management is a continuous and iterative process, and the implementation tiers don’t necessarily indicate the organization’s maturity level. Instead, they showcase the integration of cybersecurity risk into broader risk management and support ongoing risk management and decision-making. 

 

NIST CSF 2.0 as a maturity assessment tool

Beyond its original scope in cyber risk management, the NIST CSF has also been applied as a strategic planning tool to assess cybersecurity risks and current practices.  

Rather than emphasizing ongoing risk management, the framework’s standardized language and systematic methodology are used as a checklist. This checklist approach allows organizations to evaluate their existing processes, how it compares to industry peers, and serves as a baseline for future program goals.  

These point-in-time assessments are effective when reporting to board executives and informing strategic roadmaps. Often conducted in tandem with complementary frameworks, such as the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), organizations utilize the NIST CSF to evaluate program maturity based on the functions, categories, and subcategories outlined in the framework.

In a recent poll, we asked respondents to rate the maturity of their program. They described their organization’s cybersecurity program as Ad hoc or Incomplete (7%), Initial (22%), Managed (37%), Defined (21%), Quantitatively managed (9%), and Optimized (4%).

 

Bar graph showing the results from a recent poll on how cybersecurity professionals rate their organization's cyber risk management program's maturity.

 

Risk management or maturity assessment?

The NIST CSF 2.0 stands as a voluntary and versatile framework that can be adopted by organizations of all sizes, sectors and maturities. Instead of mandating a single approach, it offers a range of examples and resources that show how to leverage its guidance.

As your organization looks to operationalize the framework, keep in mind the significant differences between using it as a risk management versus a maturity assessment tool. The former involves ongoing management and day-to-day operations, while the latter delivers a static snapshot of an organization's current cybersecurity standing. 

Regardless of how the best practices in NIST CSF 2.0 are applied, the primary goal is the same: To enhance the understanding, assessment, prioritization, and communication of cyber risks and the actions that will reduce those risks.

Select the one that best addresses your unique needs and risks, fits your broader business strategy, and then right-size the framework to your organization. 

Learn more about how OneTrust helps you build, scale, and automate your security compliance program. Schedule a demo today.


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