Cybersecurity risk assessments vs. gap assessments: Why both matter

This blog post was authored by Rob Woltering - Associate Director, Security and Privacy on the technology insights blog.

As cybersecurity incidents continue to make headlines, whether involving the breach of sensitive information or the halting of an enterprise’s operations, cybersecurity risks remain top of mind for many organisations. To this end, organisations are continuously seeking to validate their cybersecurity defenses in protecting their assets and mitigating cybersecurity risks.

Two important tools that organisations often use to assess and improve their cybersecurity posture are cybersecurity risk assessments and cybersecurity gap assessments. While the two terms may seem interchangeable, they are different in both their purposes and approaches. As professional cybersecurity consultants, we often receive questions from organisations about the differences in these types of assessments, and whether one can sufficiently be used in place of the other. In this blog post, we explore the differences between these two assessments and the insights they provide.

Cybersecurity risk assessments vs. gap assessments

A cybersecurity risk assessment involves identifying, analysing, and evaluating potential cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities that could affect an organisation’s information systems, data, or operations.

  • The assessment helps organisations to identify potential security risks, determine the likelihood and impact of these risks, and prioritise the implementation of appropriate cybersecurity controls to mitigate them.
  • Risk assessments are commonly performed leveraging industry-recognised frameworks such as NIST 800-30 and are progressively evolving to produce quantified risk outputs leveraging frameworks such as FAIR.
  • Risk assessments are also often required to comply with regulatory requirements and certification frameworks.

A cybersecurity gap assessment evaluates an organisation’s current cybersecurity capabilities and processes against industry standards and best practices to identify gaps in an organisation’s defenses.

  • The assessment is designed to identify areas where an organisation’s cybersecurity capabilities and processes may fall short of established standards or industry peers, or where additional controls are needed to mitigate potential risks.
  • Gap assessments are commonly performed leveraging industry-recognised frameworks such as NIST CSF, ISO 27001, and CIS CSC or in line with regulatory or contractual information security compliance requirements such as PCI, HIPAA, etc.
  • Gap assessments are often performed as an input in the development of an organisation’s strategic cybersecurity roadmap and are also utilised to benchmark organisations against industry peers.

While both risk assessments and gap assessments are important tools for assessing an organisation’s cybersecurity posture, they serve different purposes and provide different insights. Risk assessments provide a broad, prioritised list of residual risks present in the environment of the organisation after existing controls have been applied. Gap assessments, on the other hand, provide a more targeted evaluation of specific areas of an organisation’s cybersecurity capabilities and processes, and provide recommendations for improvement.

Which is right for my organisation?

Both risk assessments and gap assessments are necessary for an organisation to effectively manage its cybersecurity risks.

  • Risk assessments help organisations identify and prioritise the top risks threatening their organisation, while gap assessments provide detailed insights into the adequacy of cybersecurity capabilities that may mitigate risks.
  • Without a risk assessment, organisations may fail to understand the scope and magnitude of their cybersecurity risks.
  • Without a gap assessment, organisations may overlook critical controls or functions where their cybersecurity capabilities are inadequate to mitigate today’s evolving cyber threats.

It should be noted that the decision between a risk assessment and a gap assessment should not be an “either/or” decision. Instead, risk assessments and gap assessments should be viewed as complementary to one another.

  • After completing a risk assessment, an organisation may use the information gathered to prioritise which areas to focus on during a gap assessment.
  • Alternatively, the outputs of a gap assessment may be utilised in a risk assessment to better understand an organisation’s mitigating safeguards, thereby enabling the organisation to better assess (or even quantify) potential impacts and likelihoods of varying threat scenarios.
  • Therefore, many organisations opt to conduct both risk assessments and gap assessments, often in parallel with one another, to obtain a holistic evaluation of their cybersecurity program, its effectiveness in mitigating cybersecurity risks, and its ability to support strategic priorities of the business going forward.

It’s also important to note that both risk assessments and gap assessments are not one-time activities. More so than ever before, organisations are operating in dynamic environments with morphing technological architectures, complex supply chains, elevated customer expectations, increased regulatory scrutiny, and evolving cybersecurity threats – each further complicating the risks and challenges that organisations must address. To remain informed of new and evolving cyber threats, organisations must conduct assessments on a recurring basis and enhance their cybersecurity defenses in conjunction with changes in their threat profile and attack surface.

Key takeaways

While cybersecurity risk assessments and cybersecurity gap assessments may sound similar, they serve different purposes and provide different insights.

Risk assessments provide insight into prioritised threat scenarios that may harm an organisation’s systems, data, or operations, thereby identifying areas in which risk mitigation strategies must be implemented.

Gap assessments, on the other hand, provide a focused evaluation of an organisation’s current cybersecurity capabilities and practices relative to industry standards, best practices, and peer benchmarks.

While varied in their purposes, approaches, and outputs, both assessments are necessary for organisations to effectively manage their cybersecurity risks and improve their defenses.

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