Finally! A guide for tailoring a governance system for Information and Technology

Back in November I posted about how excited I was to see ISACA’s update to the COBIT framework and provided some thoughts about navigating through the first two guides. Click here to take a look if you didn’t catch it, as it might help you with my comments in this post. Since that post, ISACA has launched two additional publications that take COBIT to a new level.

I asked a good colleague of mine, Tichaona Zororo, a well-known IT Governance Thought Leader and ISACA Board Member, about his thoughts on the new update and his response comes as no surprise. “The COBIT 2019 Framework is the first Governance and Management framework in our industry that allows an enterprise to design a fit for purpose Information and Technology governance solution. COBIT 2019 recognizes that enterprises are unique. There is no one-size-fits-all governance system for I&T. Every organization has its own distinct character and profile. In (the) future ISACA will call upon its global community to contribute content updates on a continuous basis, not only to ensure that COBIT remains relevant, but to keep it in line with latest insights on enterprise governance of I&T and the continuously evolving business models .” You can follow Tichaona on Twitter @TichaonaZororo.

Historically, a challenge with using frameworks to adopt good governance practices is that they are often difficult to customize to meet specific needs of an enterprise. Even though frameworks are designed to be flexible and non-prescriptive, many governance initiatives lose steam because implementers are often looking for the easy “copy-paste” solution and those simply don’t work.

Enter COBIT 2019. This latest version of the framework has taken feedback from the industry and created a flexible and truly customizable solution that can address the unique needs of any enterprise. It also assists in creating a tailored governance system for Information and Technology, or what I will refer to in this post as I&T.

There are four key publications in this release (available on the ISACA site here):

  • COBIT 2019 Framework: Introduction and Methodology which lays out the structure of the overall framework.
  • COBIT 2019 Framework: Governance and Management Objectives which contains a detailed description of the COBIT Core Model and its 40 governance and management objectives.
  • COBIT 2019 Design Guide which offers guidance on how to put COBIT to practical use.
  • COBIT 2019 Implementation Guide which is an updated and more relevant version of the COBIT 5 Implementation Guide.

 

This post will focus on the last two publications, but first let’s review some critical areas that should be understood about COBIT before we start designing our system.

The COBIT Core

One of the key areas of COBIT 2019 is the COBIT Core. This outlines the 40 Governance and Management Objectives in the COBIT framework. These are organized into 5 domains as illustrated here.

COBIT 2019 Governance and Management Objectives Domains

Each of the 40 Governance and Management objectives are aligned with an applicable domain. For example: Governance Objectives are found in EDM, while Management Objectives are in APO, BAI, DSS and MEA. Each of these objectives relates to one process. Therefore COBIT 2019 has 40 processes. The schematic below outlines these.

COBIT Governance and Management Objectives link to Processes.

This is very important to know because these objectives encompass all the potential areas that an enterprise needs to address to support the overall needs of its stakeholders. It is important to note here that all these objectives, or processes, do not need to be at the highest state of capability or level of implementation. The idea is that based on certain attributes, companies can tailor which ones, and to what level, are implemented. Which takes us to a tailored governance system.

Getting from the COBIT “Core” to a tailored governance system

One of the biggest challenges is taking the COBIT Core to a tailored system. This is where additional guidance is needed. There are many ways to do this, but to continually create value for the enterprise, make sure you consider your organization’s unique aspects. This is why COBIT introduced Design Factors and Focus Areas.

As with many frameworks, COBIT has historically been advertised as a flexible framework that can be modified to fit the needs of any enterprise. That sounds easy until you actually try to adopt a framework, so in the 2019 release, ISACA provide some much-needed guidance on how to do this. In addition to the guides there is also a very handy toolset that can get you started. I’ll show you more on that later.

What exactly does having a tailored governance system mean? This means that your enterprise has prioritized governance and management objectives, considered applicable design factors, used specific guidance from focus areas, and determined the target capability and performance management aspects of the system of governance over I&T.

Linking the COBIT2019 Core to a tailored system.

Design Factors and Focus Areas

In order to get from a framework with many options to a tailored system, design factors and focus areas should be considered.

Design factors can influence the blueprint of your enterprise’s governance system and position it for the successful use of I&T. Think of these as key points that can assist in creating a tailored governance system that truly aligns with specific and unique enterprise needs. The design factors include:

  • Enterprise strategy
  • Enterprise goals
  • Risk profile
  • I&T-related issues
  • Threat landscape
  • Compliance requirements
  • Role of IT
  • Sourcing model for IT
  • IT implementation methods
  • Technology adoption strategy
  • Enterprise size
  • Future factors

 

If you are looking for specific information on each of these design factors, refer to the COBIT 2019 Design Guide, pages 22-28.

Design factors have a huge impact on how you will design your governance system. There are three ways these can have influence and I have noted them below.

Impact of Design Factors.

A focus area “describes a certain governance topic, domain or issue that can be addressed by a collection of governance and management objectives and their components.” (COBIT Design Guide, ISACA). You can add or remove focus areas based on their applicability to your situation. These can include:

  • Small and medium enterprises
  • Cybersecurity
  • Digital transformation
  • Cloud computing
  • Privacy
  • DevOps

 

As of the writing of this post, there is no specific guidance released on leveraging Focus Areas in designing a tailored governance system. This information will most certainly be published by ISACA soon. Of course, I’m looking forward to this guidance as it really hits on some hot topics we’re seeing today.

Does the difference between Design Factors and Focus Areas still sound confusing to you? Don’t worry, it does to me too. I boil the difference down to this: think of DESIGN FACTORS as specific descriptions of your company while FOCUS AREAS are areas of influence, whether internal or external.

Workflow for designing a tailored governance system

COBIT 2019 provides a proposed workflow for designing this tailored governance system. Although the publication goes into greater detail, here is a summary of what the guidance looks like.

Steps to creating a tailored governance system using the COBIT Design Guide.

By following these steps (note, you are not required to complete ALL sub-steps), you can create a governance system that is tailored to your needs. This should provide prioritized governance and management objectives or related governance system components. However, this could result in conflicting guidance which is highly possible if you are using multiple design factors. As you most likely know, there is no magic formula to this. You may have to deal with discrepancies on a case-by-case basis. Our business environment is very dynamic, so as conditions and strategies change, you should also review the governance system regularly.

Linking the Design Guide and Implementation Guides

The good news is that the COBIT Implementation Guide in the 2019 update hasn’t really changed much since COBIT5. This is good in my opinion, it is a great model, it just needed some additional guidance – which we are getting with the Design Guide.

In case you are not familiar with this, the COBIT implementation roadmap looks like this:

The Seven Phases of the COBIT Implementation Roadmap. 2018 ©Information Systems Audit and Control Association, Inc. (ISACA).

The governance and management of enterprise I&T should be integrated with end-to-end enterprise governance. Therefore, the COBIT 2019 Implementation Guide emphasizes an enterprise-wide view of I&T governance, recognizing the relationship between business and IT-related activities.

COBIT suggests using a program approach to implementation, and I couldn’t agree more. If you look at the roadmap in the figure above, you will see that there are seven steps to an implementation approach and each step has three perspectives, or rings. The idea is that this cycle becomes a continuous approach until measurable benefits are generated, and the results become embedded in ongoing business activity. The goal is to establish the governance and management of enterprise I&T as a normal and sustainable business practice.

The Design Guide and Implementation Guide have a very distinct relationship and specific uses.

Although the Design Guide identifies some very specific synchronized points, the figure below summarizes how they are used together:

COBIT Design and Implementation Guide Relationships.

You may recognize that not all the phases in the Implementation Guide are linked to the design guide. This is because the first three phases are specifically related to the design of a governance system, while the remaining phases are focused on actual implementation. Personally, I refer to other frameworks to assist in the actual implementation. These are things like the PMBOK, PRINCE2, and of course processes in COBIT.

Using tools to assist in designing your new governance system

Finally! Let’s get to the fun stuff – seeing how this all comes together. When ISACA released the COBIT 2019 Design and Implementation Guides, they also released a toolkit that is available for download here. This Excel-based tool helps facilitate the application of the workflow I described above. The toolkit includes:

  • Introduction and instructions
  • A canvas tab that consolidates results including target capability levels
  • One tab for each design factor
  • Summary tabs that graphically represent the outcomes of steps 2 and 3
  • Mapping tables for design factors

 

I highly suggest you go download this tool and play around with it a bit. All of the things I’ve talked about in this post will become clear. Of course, the tool is explained in more detail in the Design Guide, but check out this short clip that walks us through an example scenario. I’ve created some inputs for a fictitious global manufacturing company and developed a tailored governance system specifically designed for their needs. Hopefully this helps put it all together.

Walkthrough of the ISACA Design Guide tool. 

Closing and suggestions

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post. I hope it has been valuable in helping you understand how leverage COBIT 2019 to truly create a governance and management framework that is customized to meet your specific enterprise needs.

As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated on this post, as well as my Twitter posts @escoute1.

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