Building your ISMS: From legal compliance to risk maturity

It could take anywhere from hundreds to thousands of hours to build an ISMS. A staggering amount of time is spent documenting your assets and risks, drafting policies, and preparing for ISO 27001 audits. It may get you compliance, but will it make you more secure? That depends. Does your ISMS provide a good overview of what information assets must be protected? Does it give an accurate representation of your risk posture? There are a few ISMS best practices you can follow. But perhaps let’s start with why organisations build an ISMS in the first place.

This article covers:


What triggers organisations to build an ISMS

Your organisation may be driven to implement an Information Security Management System (ISMS) for various reasons. These triggers can be related to external requirements, incident responses, or a desire to improve risk management.

Legal and client requirements

This reason applies to 70-80 per cent of cases. In this scenario, you build an ISMS due to legal and client requirements. For example, if you're a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME), you may need an ISMS to meet the demands of clients during tender processes.

You may have even heard it yourself: You guys don’t have ISO, we can’t sign”. A client might state that they will only work with vendors who have achieved ISO 27001 or got a certification on TISAX®. This pushes you to quickly implement an ISMS to secure contracts and comply with the specific certification requirements.

In the grand scheme of security and compliance, certifications are a great start, but a good, reliable ISMS requires a much more dedicated approach to risk management.

Related: Compliance isn’t security: Why organisations should go beyond certifications


Improvement of risk posture and maturity

How much risk are you willing to accept? You might proactively build an ISMS to enhance your risk posture and maturity. This is often seen in larger companies aiming to demonstrate robust risk management. By adopting an ISMS, you show commitment to high-security standards, gaining trust from stakeholders and customers. This approach helps you handle risks better and position yourself as a secure and reliable partner.

A little caveat: unless you have a large team of infosec experts, defining your risk posture can be difficult to do. You need someone with experience and expertise to understand your organisational context and related risks. So when you want to invest £20,000 in firewalls, you know it’s the right thing to do.



Response to security incidents

Experiencing a security breach can trigger the implementation of an ISMS. After a compromise, you might realise your security measures are insufficient. For instance, if your company suffers a data breach, you may urgently establish an ISMS to prevent future incidents.

Here, we face the dilemma of proactive vs reactive security. If your ISMS was in place before the incident, chances are, you would have been better prepared by knowing your most critical information assets and risks. That’s why a proactive approach and a dedicated ISMS buildup lead to more robust information security.

Watch: What’s cheaper: paying the ransom or investing in cyber security?


Ground zero: what happens before you even start building an ISMS

Before you even sit down to craft your ISMS, consider a few elements. Here’s what you could start with for the best results.

It begins with top management

First, involve top management. Their participation secures alignment and commitment throughout the entire organisation. For example, if clients demand better security, top management must understand the ISMS and allocate resources. Their involvement is critical for the initiative to receive the necessary support and priority. It’s also mandatory to involve top management as per ISO 27001.

Define your scope – focus on the big hitters

Next, define the scope of your ISMS. Focus on the most important areas of your business. For instance, if you run a software development company, start with everything related to software development. If you’re a FinTech, you may prioritise customer data management systems and start structuring your ISMS around this function.

Get a platform and experts to help you

You might get away with spreadsheets when you’re a tiny start-up, but eventually, you will need a dedicated platform and experts. Building an ISMS requires specific knowledge. Involve people who understand the requirements and can guide you through the process. This includes consultants, external experts, and internal team members.

Conduct competency checks to ensure everyone involved has the necessary skills. Assign owners to each risk area and plan for knowledge transfer. For instance, if a key IT manager leaves, a clear handover process maintains your ISMS integrity.

Related: ISMS: Accredited vs. non-accredited ISO 27001 certification


Do you have governance in place?

Governance sets the foundation for your ISMS. Start by creating documents that outline how you handle tasks like creating documents and conducting risk assessments, following  . These clauses cover company stakeholders, risk management, and continual improvement. For example, create a policy that mandates timestamping and classifying documents. Governance ensures everyone knows and follows the procedures, providing a clear path before any actions are taken.


Best practices for building your ISMS

Provided you’ve involved your executives, considered the ISMS scope, chosen your platform, and have experts to guide you, you can start building your ISMS.

Perform a gap analysis

First, perform a gap analysis. Assess your current state and identify gaps between where you are and where you want to be. This process can often also highlight some of your biggest risks and aid in how to decide whether your focus is on certification or overall risk posture. For example, if you aim for certification, your gap analysis will highlight areas that must meet specific standards. If improving your risk posture is the goal, the analysis will identify broader security improvements.

Pin down critical assets

What could shut down your operations? That’s the question to ask when managing assets in your ISMS. Start with focusing on those critical assets first. Every business has its unique digital footprint—what's a risk for one might not matter for another. This calls for a strategy that targets the key elements driving your revenue. Then do a risk assessment to figure out what threats these assets face and how to protect them.

Risk assessment, treatment and management

Provided you’ve sorted out governance and gap analysis, start with the most important part of building an ISMS—risks. Risk assessment, treatment, and management each represent a different process in the risk workflow, but they work together to create a strong ISMS.

  • Start with risk assessment. Identify and evaluate risks to your critical assets. Look at potential threats applicable to your organisational context, such as data breaches if you’re a consultancy and system failures if you’re a SaaS company. This assessment helps you understand your vulnerabilities.
  • Next is risk treatment. Decide on the treatment option most suitable for the identified risks and develop a plan to address them. If your assessment shows laptops are at risk of theft, include actions like installing physical locks and secure storage policies in your plan. This ensures that you have clear steps to mitigate risks.
  • Risk management ties everything together. Regularly test your implemented controls to make sure they work and are effective in the ISMS. For example, verify that data encryption is effective. Document these tests to show that your measures are effective and see if there are any improvements that could be made.

Assess risks, treat them, and manage the ongoing process. This cycle allows your ISMS to adapt and stay effective, protecting your organisation’s assets and meeting compliance.

Related: Critical risk management KPIs for IT leaders (+infographic)


Consider starting with one risk

There are always more risks than resources, so if your security budget is stretched thin, start with just one risk. It has to be the most critical one to your line of business. This way, you can develop solid policies and procedures without getting overwhelmed.

Plus, it helps show quick wins to your executive team and stakeholders, proving the value of your ISMS early on. Once you’ve effectively managed that one risk, you’ll have a good template to handle other risks, making the whole process smoother and more effective.

Utilise controls

A large part of creating an effective ISMS is utilising controls to reduce identified risks and protect assets. ISO 27001 Annex A (2022) offers a comprehensive set of controls designed to protect your organisation's information assets. These controls are grouped into organisational, people, physical, and technological controls:

  • Organisational controls establish a robust information security management framework, including policies, procedures, and roles and responsibilities.
  • People controls focus on training and awareness programs to ensure employees understand their information security duties.
  • Physical controls protect physical access to information assets through secure locations and access controls.
  • Technological controls implement technical measures such as encryption, access controls, and monitoring systems to safeguard data from unauthorised access and breaches.

The main purpose of controls is to mitigate risks related to information security, ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of information.

Collect evidence with an ISMS-first approach

As an output from implementing specific controls, you’ll collect evidence. This evidence is then used to calculate the effectiveness of your controls, plus aid in proving risk maturity internally as well as externally (including auditors). Regular evidence collection helps promptly identify and address any gaps in security, reinforcing the resilience of your ISMS.

Keep evidence collection simple. Make sure your team knows what to document and use easy-to-follow templates for everything. This makes audits easier and shows everyone that your ISMS works. Good evidence collection is all about staying organised and consistent.



Look at this workflow like this: if you documented a risk, test its treatment plan to ensure it works and note down the results to improve. Structured evidence collection empowers your organisation to maintain a high standard of information security, which in return builds trust with stakeholders and sets you up for success.

Internal audits and continuous improvement

Internal audits help maintain the health of your ISMS. For optimal results, internal audits should be run by someone not involved in building the ISMS. Use the audit findings to make immediate improvements and keep a record of what changes you make.

This keeps your ISMS sharp and shows it's always getting better. Continuous improvement means learning from each audit and constantly boosting your security. This way, your ISMS goes beyond a pile of policies on paper and becomes a dynamic system that improves over time.

Make ISMS an integral part of organisational culture

Integrating an ISMS can be tough, especially in companies with established routines. Employees often resist new processes, so awareness and training are a must. Clearly explain why changes in policies and procedures are needed to help everyone get on board.

If new policies are causing problems, they might not be implemented or communicated well. Make sure your policies are clear and easy to follow. This approach reduces resistance and helps integrate the ISMS smoothly into daily operations.


Is building an ISMS a good investment?

The short answer – yes. Building an ISMS can be seen as a significant investment, but its value justifies the cost. For many businesses, especially those handling sensitive information, an ISMS helps ensure data security and compliance with regulations. This, in turn, can prevent costly data breaches and legal issues. Moreover, having a robust ISMS in place can boost customer confidence and trust, which maintains and expands the client base.

Related: Organisational security changed: How to adapt as an IT leader


However, for an ISMS to be a worthwhile investment, it needs support from top management and alignment with business goals. When properly integrated, it strengthens security measures and enhances operational efficiency. If it’s too complicated or poorly implemented, it can cause frustration and non-compliance.

Regular reviews and adjustments are necessary to keep the ISMS efficient and aligned with the company's goals. That’s the only way it can remain a beneficial framework for security and compliance and not a bureaucratic burden.


Are the ISO 27001 guidelines enough to build a robust ISMS?

ISO 27001 guidelines provide a starting point for building an ISMS, but they might not be sufficient alone. Relying solely on ISO 27001 might not address every organisation's specific needs and culture.

For small organisations, following ISO 27001 can enhance their security practices and demonstrate a commitment to data protection. However, for larger organisations, such as banks or government entities, ISO 27001 should be seen as the baseline. These organisations face greater risks and more sophisticated threats, requiring additional measures beyond the standard.

So, while ISO 27001 is a great foundation, a comprehensive, effective ISMS requires going beyond the guidelines to address unique challenges and bulletproof security.


Start building your ISMS

If you want to improve your existing ISMS or start building one from scratch, DataGuard offers a hybrid approach of merging an ISMS and expert guidance to create a robust ISMS that will help you get certified and strengthen information security in your organisation all at once.

Boost your ISMS or start from scratch with DataGuard's hybrid approach, which combines expert guidance with an AI-powered platform. You can get certified and strengthen your organisation's information security all in one. Reach out for a chat.


*TISAX® is a registered trademark of the ENX Association. DataGuard is not affiliated with the ENX Association. We provide Software-as-a-Service and support for the assessment on TISAX® only. The ENX Association does not take any responsibility for any content shown on DataGuard's website.


Frequently Asked Questions

What does ISMS stand for?

ISMS stands for Information Security Management System. It is a systematic approach to managing sensitive company information to keep it secure. This encompasses people, processes, and IT systems by implementing a risk management process.

Why is it important to have an ISMS?

Having an ISMS is vital as it aids organisations in protecting their information through effective risk management, ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and enhancing the organisation's reputation by demonstrating a commitment to information security, thereby fostering trust with customers and stakeholders.

What are the implications of lack of information security?

The lack of information security can result in serious consequences, including data breaches, financial losses, reputational damage, loss of customer trust, legal penalties, and operational disruptions. It can also lead to unauthorised access to, or destruction of, sensitive data, affecting both the organisation and its clients.

What are the risks of not having a security policy?

Without a security policy, organisations are more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, data breaches, and insider threats. There is a higher risk of inconsistent handling of sensitive information, non-compliance with regulations, and an overall lack of preparedness for security incidents, which can result in financial losses, legal issues, and reputational harm.

How to measure ISMS effectiveness?

The effectiveness of an ISMS can be measured through regular audits and assessments, monitoring and analysing security incidents, reviewing compliance with security policies and standards, and evaluating the results of security awareness training programmes. Key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics such as the number of security breaches, incident response times, and audit findings can provide valuable insights into the ISMS's performance.

Is ISMS the same as ISO 27001?

ISMS (Information Security Management System) is not the same as ISO 27001, though they are closely related. ISMS is a comprehensive framework for managing and protecting an organisation's information security, encompassing policies, procedures, and controls. ISO 27001, on the other hand, is an international standard that specifies the requirements for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and continually improving an ISMS. In essence, ISO 27001 provides the guidelines and best practices for creating and operating an effective ISMS.

What is the standard for ISMS?

The standard for ISMS is ISO 27001, which is the internationally recognised specification for an information security management system. ISO 27001 outlines the requirements for systematically managing sensitive company information and ensuring its confidentiality, integrity, and availability. The standard includes a risk management process and a set of controls to address information security risks, thereby helping organisations protect their information assets and gain stakeholder confidence.


About the author

Emrick Etheridge Emrick Etheridge
Emrick Etheridge

Emrick Etheridge is an associate Information Security Consultant and a certified ISO 27001 Lead Auditor. Prior to DataGuard, Emrick studied Computer Science at Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge) before entering a world of Digital Forensics and Information Security for a Cambridge based company. In these roles, he consulted merchants who required either a digital forensic investigation or re-certification. Emrick was also a certified Cyber Essentials assessor at the heart of the pandemic which proved to be an interesting time in industry. In his current role, he helps SMEs create an Information Security Management System (ISMS) to strengthen their security posture as well as consulting them on their path to obtaining ISO 27001 certification.

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