What is Continuous Compliance and How to Achieve Continuous Compliance?

continuous compliance

Modern organizations deal with large volumes of sensitive user data, which makes compliance management a must for building customer trust and avoiding hefty fines. Making last-minute security maneuvers whenever the date for compliance audit approaches or a cyber attack happens, is not good for the organization in the long run.

Continuous compliance is a must for achieving and maintaining compliance with industry and regulatory requirements in any organization on an ongoing basis.

This blog throws light on what continuous compliance is, why it is needed, ways to achieve continuous compliance, and best practices in continuous compliance monitoring. 

What is Continuous Compliance?

Before getting into details on continuous compliance, we need to first understand what compliance is. Compliance is defined as the state of being in accordance with established guidelines or specifications or the process of becoming so.

For example, while developing software code, it should be developed in compliance with specifications created by a standards body, and deployed by user organizations in compliance with the vendor’s licensing agreement. The regulations and standards for compliance are different in every industry. Workplace compliance is the act of complying with federal, state, or local laws and regulations. 

There are two main types of compliance –

  1. Corporate
  2. Regulatory

Both these types comprise a framework of rules, regulations, and practices to follow. Corporate compliance refers to the rules and regulations that an organization puts into place for compliance with both external and internal policies. Regulatory compliance on the other hand applies to the rules and regulations an organization puts into place for compliance with external regulations. 

Compliance must not be considered as a one-off event, but an ongoing practice that every business has to follow at all times. Continuous compliance is achieving compliance with regulatory requirements, industry standards, and best practices across your IT and business environment and then maintaining it on an ongoing basis.

Continuous compliance helps develop and incorporate a strategy in the organization that continually monitors your compliance position. This way, you can stay updated on your compliance requirements instead of reviewing them with an annual audit alone or when a non-compliance event occurs.

Continuous compliance ensures security across the organization by notifying teams of non-compliance issues in real time. Continuous compliance monitoring is a continuous approach to identifying non-compliant endpoints in your infrastructure without waiting for periodic audits and causing security gaps. 

Continuous compliance is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It branches into different facets or processes that you need to proactively undertake based on your compliance requirements and company security requirements. 

  • Vulnerability management – The process of finding all the vulnerabilities within a given system, determining their importance, fixing the issues, and documenting the entire process, is called vulnerability management. 
  • Policy management – Internal rules, company best practices, and federal laws are part of policy management. 
  • Vendor management – Monitoring the privacy practices of third-party vendors is part of vendor management.
  • Data management – The process of managing your data to keep it secure is referred to as data management.
  • Risk management – All the efforts towards implementing a risk strategy, identifying risk types, and categorizing them by priority, are part of the risk management policy. 
  • Incident management – Handling any type of hardware or software failures, cyber-attacks, or malware attacks is considered incident management.
  • HR management – Applying compliance policies to create a better working environment for employees and risk-averse businesses is part of HR management. 

Continuous compliance eliminates response delays whenever a compliance issue arises. The organization needs to build a framework as a starting point and then expand from there. Organizations can achieve continuous compliance with the automation of compliance management.

Why Do Companies Need Continuous Compliance?

Compliance is a prevalent business concern, partly due to an ever-increasing number of regulations that require companies to be vigilant about maintaining a complete understanding of their regulatory requirements for compliance.

Moreover, compliance management is an ongoing process that involves regular audits of business processes. In today’s ever changing and constantly reshaping cyber environment, compliance is not just the logical path to take, but a necessity to avoid any operational risks. 

Compliance audits can mean chaos and confusion for some businesses. Every 6-12 months, all stakeholders are pulled out of their core duties to fix compliance gaps discovered in compliance audits. With close deadlines for fixing these issues, no one really bothers or has the time to work out long-term solutions for closing compliance gaps.

The result is usually a quick fix, without actually fixing the issue simmering beneath the surface. Seasonal chaos is not the right path to compliance management, a continuous approach towards compliance is the right way for organizations. This is where continuous compliance comes into play. 

Continuous compliance is a proactive approach to maintaining the requirements set by frameworks and regulations across the business environment on an ongoing basis. Since it is an ongoing approach, the goal of continuous compliance is to recognize the requirements that always exist, not just during an audit, but as part of daily operations.

Process owners that follow continuous compliance provide evidence that they have been maintaining at regular intervals instead of scrambling to produce evidence reactively. 

Continuous compliance monitoring is much more effective than simple audits. Even when you increase the frequency of audits, the slightest gap between audit times could lead to an oversight that results in non-compliance. That brings us to the discussion of why companies are better off with continuous compliance rather than compliance audits. 

1. Real-time compliance 

To keep up with ever-changing regulations and policies, businesses need a compliance monitoring system that provides real-time updates. Such a system enables the team to stay vigilant and proactively monitor the non-compliant assets of the organization.

A compliance monitoring system that monitors in real-time, allows the team to solve compliance issues as they arise, thus bridging the gap between risk detection and remediation process. Real-time compliance monitoring provides deeper visibility across the IT asset’s risks and vulnerabilities.

Real-time visibility equips the leadership to make faster and more effective decisions instead of dousing last-minute fires. Moreover, manual compliance management processes leave room for last-minute changes, which puts pressure on the teams to modify processes according to these last-minute changes. 

2. Minimizes audit effort

Traditional compliance methods take a reactive approach to compliance management by putting off risk detection and assessment until the time of audits. This approach leads to inefficiency and a time-consuming burst of activities across the responsible teams. Continuous compliance on the other hand accelerates the compliance management cycle and yields increased efficiency and peace of mind. 

3. Boosts data security

Staying compliant shrinks the attack surface on your business. Process owners can easily identify the risks and anchor the right controls with continuous compliance monitoring. The security around processes and relevant data is further strengthened by the continuous monitoring of processes. All the security gaps are proactively closed before they become security threats. 

4. Boosts company’s reputation

New partnerships often sprout from trust-based partnerships, and effective compliance management lays the foundation for a trust-based partnership. Vendors usually look for a company’s commitment to security and compliance. Therefore, establishing and maintaining continuous compliance helps organizations attract new business opportunities and improve the loyalty of existing customers. 

5. Audit readiness

Seasonal compliance requires a lot of effort to gather data, close compliance gaps, and produce reports. Pre-audit effort sends the entire organization into a tizzy for gathering data and identifying and closing compliance gaps. With continuous compliance, all the data required for the audit is readily available. You can analyze data to identify the process gaps and generate reports with just a few clicks. Your teams are always audit-ready with continuous compliance and don’t have to allocate time away from regular work for audit preparation. 

6. Competitive advantage

Businesses that can adhere to compliance standards at all times are preferred by customers, vendors, and partners. Compliant businesses rank higher in the eyes of prospective customers who prefer vendors that have a low-risk profile. Continuous compliance readily provides the data requested by auditors so you can get to the negotiating table faster. Existing customers too appreciate that you are always on top of things, which reinforces their loyalty. 

Pros and Cons of Continuous Compliance Solutions

Before going in for a continuous compliance solution, it would be a good thing to know the pros and cons of implementing continuous compliance solutions. The pros of continuous compliance are listed below –

Frequent and quick security checks

Continuous compliance solutions install health checks as the primary control process for maintaining compliance at all times. A compliance management solution helps process owners to conduct frequent and fast compliance checks and respond proactively to vulnerabilities and compliance gaps. 

Minimizes human error

Errors and inconsistencies are common when teams manually process large volumes of data using spreadsheets. Continuous compliance eliminates the burden of the entire compliance management from IT teams and reduces the risk of compliance error. 

Provides deeper visibility

Manual compliance management lacks visibility and transparency into compliance statuses. The visibility of an automated compliance solution eliminates the scramble to dig for information for compliance audits. It provides complete visibility into the security state of servers, compliance policies, and regulatory changes. 

Design compliance

While building applications it is important to adhere to compliance and security policies throughout the app development lifecycle. A continuous compliance process ensures that app development is in sync with compliance requirements at all stages. 

The cons of implementing a continuous compliance solution are-

Increasing costs

The costs of maintaining automated regulatory compliance are skyrocketing, owing to new regulations proliferating frequently, and new compliance solutions emerging in the market. Rapidly increasing costs create a dilemma in the minds of companies, especially SMBs, whether the costs outweigh the benefits of continuous compliance. You need to compare various solutions available in the market based on features and costs before choosing a solution that is cost-effective. 

Changing cyber landscape

Being compliant does not mean that you have achieved complete cyber security. Just checking off compliance requirements or implementing strong control, or passing an audit, does not mean that the compliance journey is complete. The cyber landscape is constantly changing and at the end of the day, human oversight is necessary to ensure that new and existing regulations and trends are being addressed. 

How to Achieve Continuous Compliance?

What is the approach to maintaining continuous compliance? Going through the compliance journey is well worth the effort. There are some key steps that will lead to successful compliance management. 

Identify and understand compliance standards

The first step towards continuous compliance is understanding the policies or standards that you need to comply with. These standards or policies vary dramatically depending on the location, industry, and target customers. For example, healthcare organizations need to adhere to HIPAA guidelines; businesses that serve EU citizens must comply with GDPR; and cloud service providers must comply with SOC 2 policies. 

Once you are sure which standard or policy applies to your business, you can start aligning its requirements to your organization. If regulatory or customer requirements require multiple frameworks, then mapping each standard’s requirements will help minimize duplicate efforts. 

Perform risk assessments and establish controls

Once the relevant compliance standards have been identified, you can measure how close you are to achieving them. To measure how close you are to achieving, the first step is to audit every asset, system, process, and third-party relationship that could impact compliance.

The next step is to evaluate the compliance gaps in all these entities. The final step is to enact the controls needed to close the gaps and bring the organization into compliance. They could be new processes or even as simple as training programs. 

Monitor continuously

With the right controls in place, you must monitor your compliance continuously. Compliance monitoring is not a one-time process, continuous compliance monitoring is required for every control mechanism that you implement to close compliance gaps.

Activity logs can be used to determine what normal activity means and to highlight unusual activity. Alerts and notifications can tell a process owner what actions to take. 

Document everything

Every decision and incident at every step in the compliance process must be documented. Proper documentation helps process owners to learn from past incidents to improve decision-making and long-term planning. Documentation also helps people learn how their actions impact compliance and how non-compliance affects the business.

This is important because compliance ownership is not concentrated on the IT department. Everyone on the team is assigned specific responsibilities that they need to understand and acknowledge. 

Best Practices in Continuous Compliance

Now that we have a fair idea about what continuous compliance is, how to achieve it, and the pros and cons of continuous compliance, let us get into the best practices of continuous compliance. 

1. Understand your compliance standards 

Based on the scope and nature of business operations, what are all the compliance standards you need to consider? This should be the first point you need to clearly establish before going for continuous compliance.

Compliance standards are all those laws and regulations that your organization must comply with to conduct business and avoid major penalties. These standards can either be at the state level or federal level, or international level. The policies can either be internal, those that the company sets for itself, or external, those that are laid down by Government or Law bodies. 

Compliance standards vary by industry and organization, which makes it important to learn the nuances associated with policies/standards that are relevant to your organization.

Understanding the intricacies of specific policies is the first step to the long-term success of continuous compliance. Once the standards specific to your company have been established, it becomes easy to set every part of your company up to speed and protected from threats. 

2. Identify critical assets 

Cyberspace is an integral part of every organization, making compliance more important than ever. Organizations need to figure out how to skilfully navigate through the new compliance landscape to secure both physical and dynamic assets. You need to identify the most critical assets and determine how to protect them. Data is among the most critical assets in any organization. With advanced technology in use, data storage options include cloud computing systems and third-party vendors. You need to clearly understand how and where your data is stored, processed, and transmitted so that you can frame a clear policy to safeguard data. 

3. Identify compliance gaps 

There are several places/instances where compliance gaps occur within an organization. Continuous compliance involves identifying and fixing those gaps for maintaining overall security and internal structures. 

4. Establish controls 

Controls are essentially internal systems used for streamlining processes and staying compliant. These systems include training, policies, data monitoring, and audits. Control systems may be regarded as the first line of defense against attackers. The attack may be in the form of a data breach or an internal error, it is important to establish a system to tackle it. Once specific controls have been determined, you will need to document them properly and maintain them for long-term effectiveness.

5. Maintain documentation 

Establishing a compliance system is one thing, and proving that it works at all times is another ball game. Having proper documentation of compliance procedures is extremely important to avoid fines and repercussions. Audit trails, reviews, questionnaires, signed policies, etc are examples of compliance documentation. 

6. Enable continuous insights 

Vulnerabilities may crop up anytime in a business. Organizations must always be on the lookout for opportunities to improve and catch vulnerabilities in the systems. Regular proactive steps are needed to spot and fix vulnerabilities as they occur. Running automated tests and investigating errors are part of the efforts to gain continuous insights into vulnerabilities. 

7. Communicate clearly 

Compliance management has several sub-sections that require proper communication between each section. Clear interdepartmental and external communication is necessary to ensure that all the stakeholders have real-time insights.

Having a streamlined communication path eliminates any misunderstandings or mistakes made by the departments. Getting everyone on board requires clear communication channels between departments and with external entities. 

Establishing a clear and streamlined continuous compliance system provides several advantages to the business. One of the main advantages is that your business remains compliant in real-time, which enables teams to be proactive rather than reactive.

The effort required in preparing for audits is greatly reduced with a continuous compliance solution. Staying compliant helps build the company’s reputation with customers and vendors. 

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Automating Compliance Management

A streamlined compliance management process is a must for any organization. Spending too much time on manual compliance management is not good for the health of the business.

Implementing continuous compliance automation for taking care of all the compliance management requirements in an organization is a relief to process owners. Keeping track of all the updates in regulations and policies can be overwhelming when done manually. An automated continuous compliance monitoring system provides –

  • Complete visibility over assets in the cloud
  • Cyber attack surface management
  • Automated process controls
  • Continuous monitoring of resources and configurations
  • A mechanism for preventing vulnerabilities
  • Automated alerts and notifications whenever an anomaly occurs

The right continuous compliance monitoring and visibility solution helps businesses minimize asset complexity and continuously monitor them for compliance. 

Conclusion

A common mistake that most organizations commit is to assume that if they were compliant during the last audit, then they are compliant forever! With regulatory standards, IT infrastructure, and compliance requirements changing all the time, continuous compliance is the only way to remain compliant at all times and under changing circumstances.

Continuous compliance automation comes as a huge relief to process owners, enabling them to maintain and adhere to regulatory policies and standards in a proactive fashion. Relying on manual methods to maintain regulatory compliance is a recipe for disaster.

Using a cloud-based workflow automation solution like Cflow simplifies continuous compliance monitoring significantly. The visual form builder in Cflow enables teams to create custom workflows by simply dragging and dropping the workflow elements.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for the free trial of Cflow for effective and efficient compliance management. 

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