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3 Reasons Your Security Awareness Training Program isn’t working (and how to fix it)

Parker Byrd

A common and frustrating theme of security awareness training across the board is the high prevalence of organizations adopting it reactively. All too frequently, companies will wait until they've experienced a cyberattack to actually get serious about the topic itself. What makes this so devastating is the fact that this harm is something that's largely preventable through the application of proper and effective security training and awareness practices.

This raises the question of why this is so, and what can be done to combat it.  The answer, in short, is that it's the result of a combination of factors. We're going to take a brief look at some of these here.

3 Pitfalls of Ineffective Training Programs

1. Inconsistency

All too many organizations make the mistake of halfheartedly implementing security awareness efforts and initiatives without any real plans on keeping them a continuing priority. This is where most companies fail, as they don’t understand that awareness and mitigation needs to be an ongoing strategy, and in turn open themselves up to the development of threats.

The key to success in this regard is consistency. Something that holds true for security awareness and prevention efforts, in particular, is often what will keep best practices at their most effective over the long term.

Awareness should be a continuing endeavor. It's not a one-time event. It requires the development of new and healthy habits in regards to security and an institution of behavioral change among staff. This is not something that can be done overnight and necessitates a long-term approach and plan in order to be truly effective. Organizations must invest time and resources into keeping employees engaged with security messaging over the long term rather than trying to cram it all into a week or a month. Doing so can support program participants in more readily retaining the information they are given, and can likewise convey a higher sense of priority on the matter.

Another important point worth mentioning is the need for further improvement after programs have been implemented. Despite the best of intentions, it’s very common for security awareness training to lose value over time. Cybersecurity is a fluid topic and necessitates consistent practice as well as improvement on behalf of companies. In this way, organizations looking to improve their security training efforts through the likes of consistency should pay special emphasis to not only how often they conduct sessions, but also how frequently they update their material.

2. Lack Of Planning

One of the most common reasons security training programs fail is a lack of adequate planning and effort on behalf of organizations. As a highly important topic, security awareness and management should be a top priority for businesses. It's essential to adopt in order to mitigate the ongoing and growing threats present in today's cyber landscape and without it, organizations undoubtedly open themselves up to avoidable risks and damage.

This is why a comprehensive approach to the implementation of security awareness training is so important. In order to be of any value, these initiatives require a solid structure and framework that serve to effectively educate participants in a meaningful way. This means an emphasis not only on the quality of information taught in the program but also a focus on how it is taught and applied. Programs should be based on total comprehension and retention rather than the onslaught of as much information as possible.

They should be designed to be engaging, memorable, and above all else, outcome-oriented in order to be effective. This means building a program structure with strategic purpose, rich in helpful takeaways and actionable goals that can work towards the fruition of the actual objective they were put in place for. In this way, not only will participants have a strong grasp on the skills and principles being taught, but they'll also be more likely to retain them as permanent good habits.

3. Unengaging Content

No matter how frequently an organization conducts its training sessions, if the content is boring, no one will pay attention and they will be ineffective. While important policies, facts, and statistics are essential in appropriately conveying the nature of cybersecurity to participants, they can quickly become overwhelming. Topics being discussed can quickly lose meaning in this way, and work to disengage learners rather than teach them the fundamentals they should know and care about.

Providing chore-like training will do more harm than good to employees' capacity to learn and retain cybersecurity best practices. Overly technical words and a tendency to bore staff to death are another two problems commonly caused within this type of dynamic. As such, it's important for security training initiatives to be paired with engaging material meant to stress certain topics and support overall involvement. Ultimately, creating a security awareness training program that is appealing, interesting, and comprehensible for everyone who partakes in it is the key to its success. This means a consideration of the quantity and delivery of materials used, as well as an effort to convey them in the most relevant ways possible.

Providing real-world examples and implications of issues relating to cybersecurity is a great example of this, as it identifies the purpose for the information discussed and allows participants to connect it to actual value. This can be taken a step further and applied to the design of the program as a whole, with an emphasis on how information taught can apply or impact their day-to-day work lives. The same process should also be seen in methods of training delivery used. While having options such as live webinars, recorded lectures and printed course materials are helpful, they should all be used in tandem with hands-on training methods to maximize participant involvement. This could include interactive demonstrations or real-life examples that can help participants visualize key concepts and truly internalize them as part of their training experience. The goal of making something as vital as cyber security training enjoyable is to get participants to care about the topic and empower them to view cyber risk as a surmountable issue. Doing so is paramount to getting participants involved in these programs and without such engagement, organizations are left to deal with the risks of ineffective training and underprepared staff.

Best Practices For Improving Security Awareness Programs

While this breakdown is certainly not exhaustive of all of the factors that can hinder a company's security training program, it encompasses some of the most common issues that go unresolved.  In order to implement a successful awareness training program, some of the best practices that can be applied include:

1. Stay Relevant To Company Culture

Whether it's through creating custom terminology or infusing aspects of organizational culture into the lessons taught, one of the most effective ways to increase engagement and enhance learning is by taking advantage of natural company dynamics. By tailoring the information given to specific elements of different work environments, learners will be more motivated and receptive to what is being taught.

2. Focused On The Right Security Risks

It is important for organizations to realize that not all security risks are created equal and context matters when it comes to prioritizing training initiatives. While it would be ideal to train all employees on a wide swath of relevant risks, it is important for companies to prioritize teaching participants about the ones that will have the most impact and relevance for their role.

3. Recognize And React To Different Learning Styles

Since each member of an organization has a different way of learning best, those responsible for security awareness should take note of this and adjust the methods used to teach accordingly. This could mean emphasizing different information or using interactive methods that can truly engage participants in real-time.

4. Integrate The Training Into Everyday Work Life

One thing many people struggle with when completing security awareness training is how disconnected it seems from their daily work routines. By taking advantage of relevant examples and integrating awareness training into the already established workflows, employees will feel more empowered to make a difference.

5. Recognize And Respond To The Need For Continuous Learning

Part of what makes security awareness so challenging is that it is an ongoing process that requires constant upkeep to be effective. While there are many different aspects involved with security awareness, it is important for organizations to realize that continuous learning and improvement of the program is one of the most crucial aspects. By doing so, they can ensure that new risks are recognized and addressed accordingly.

All in all, the single biggest mistake an organization can make when it comes to security awareness training is not caring enough to prioritize it. A lack of effort when it comes to cyber security awareness training is often indicative of how organizations value the importance of these initiatives. If management doesn't see real value in it, why would anyone else? In order to be successful, these initiatives require planning, dedication and effort on behalf of everyone involved. Failure to do so means opening organizations up to the risks of an underprepared workforce, as well as all of the other unknowns looming in the world of cybercrime.

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