Strategy needs translation to activity in order to preserve intent.  Otherwise strategy remains on paper only, and never becomes the actual direction in which we are heading.

I suppose I need to clarify that a little?  It’s a general idea I’ve been using in my day to day work for a while now, but I sometimes find it hard to explain in detail: I thought putting it in writing might help me work through some of the kinks.

I think the best way to reason through it is using a specific example, and since Vulnerability Management (VM) seem to be top of mind for me right now, I’ll use Security as the example.  Note that I’m not picking on Security as the only culprit here, I think we (as a company) do this all over the place, but Security is something I’m familiar with.

We had several major gaps in our security and compliance processes that we were trying to close with the VM project.  A perfect example is the identification and fixing of software patches within our environment.  The way this should work is:

  • someone is closely monitoring the releases of patches from the vendors
  • someone identifies which patches are relevant to the company and should be installed
  • someone identifies where the patches are needed (where the relevant software versions are present within the company)
  • someone creates a task to install the patch, routed to the correct group
  • someone performs the task, installs the patch

Or let’s think of another example: setting a security policy:

  • someone writes the policy that says “all databases containing credit card info must be encrypted”
  • someone interprets the policy for each of the databases in the company
  • someone documents the approved products, installation and configuration options to set correctly in order to meet the policy requirements
  • someone installs and configures the products to meet the policy

The problem?  All those “someones”.  Organizationally, what we have traditionally had at the enterprise hasn’t done a very good job of assigning the right people to those roles, mostly by putting too much of a wedge between the policy ‘definers’ and the policy ‘implementers’.  This got a bit worse as part of our outsourcing, but it was here all along.  We ended up with the following types of situation:

  • – someone identifies the software patches that should be installed in the company
  • – that info is handed over the wall to the operations teams
  • – ops teams don’t know where the patch is required, or don’t have enough operationally-specific information to install correctly/completely
  • – any questions back over the wall get the response: “We don’t do that, that’s operations, we just define the policy, you have to figure it out”
  • – the patch never gets installed

…or…

  • The statement “databases with credit card information should be encrypted” is made as a policy
  • The policy is handed over the wall to the ops teams, and they are told “go encrypt everything that has CC data”
  • The ops teams ask “where do we have CC data?  And how do we configure the 150 options that this encryption software has, to make sure we meet your expectations.  And how do we support this over time?  Who will be monitoring the logs, and who do they notify when something happens?  And what are the ‘something happens’ that you need to know about, and which are noise?”
  • Strategy teams says “that’s an ops issue.”
  • Ops team installs and configures software incorrectly, incompletely or ignores it in the absence of complete knowledge on how to implement and support it.  It’s not supported over time, and no one looks at the logs to see and respond to errors.

We need to improve the way the strategy groups respond to requests for clarification and understanding from the operations groups.  The best way to do that is make sure the conversation goes this way:

“Here are the standards and the policies and the requirements”

“OK.  How do I implement all that in this environment?”

“Hmm.  I don’t know.  But I know the strategy, you know the environment: let’s figure it out together.”

How do we do that?  Good question.  The recent work we’ve been doing to develop Minimum Baseline Standards is a great start, but it’s not enough to get five of these a year from a consultant, where they remain pretty much frozen in stone until the next year.  We need meetings between the strategy and the operations representatives to be a natural, regular part of business, and we need people whose main responsibility is to translate from one to the other, breaking down the high-level strategy to the detailed implementation, with full knowledge about both.  Otherwise the strategy remains on paper: ignored, implemented incorrectly, or implemented to barely satisfy the letter of the law, rather than the spirit inherent in the strategy.

How did we attempt this in VM?  By making sure that it wasn’t enough for the security strategy groups to identify patches that needed to be addressed in theory, but requiring they link those patches to the vulnerabilities identified, within our company, by our scanning systems.  Then translating the strategic view into an operational activity list: “here’s what we have to do, within our company, on these specific servers, in order to meet our requirements for our security strategy.  And here’s when you can do it, and here’s the group that is responsible for the task.”  It’s more work, sure: there’s the additional steps to map the identified issues with the enterprise-present issues, and map the issues to the activity required to fix them, and map the activities to the respective responsible and accountable groups.  But it’s necessary, and I’m not sure there’s a better or more efficient way to do it.

The same applies to all of our strategies.  We do a sub-optimal job of translating strategy to operational process to solve the “Monday morning 8:00am” problem, which can be expressed as follows: when a system administrator sits down as his/her desk at 8:00am next Monday morning, they have a thousand things they can do.  How do they know what they should do, and do first?  When they make a selection and start work, are they choosing the operational tasks that are (ultimately) prioritized, sorted and filtered by the company strategy?  Can you show that link from the company strategy to the first item done at 8:00am?  If not, then your strategy only exists on paper.