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HomeGRC CentralISO 27001ISO 27001 Certification Process

ISO 27001 Certification Process: Step-by-Step Guide

ISO 27001 Certification process

What's Inside

Learn about the importance of ISO 27001 certification and how to successfully navigate the three phases of implementation, auditing, and maintenance for effective information security management.

Contents
Why Obtain ISO 27001 Certification?Benefits of Compliance and Consequences of Non-ComplianceUnderstanding ISO 27001Phases of the ISO 27001 Certification ProcessSteps of the Certification ProcessBest PracticesCommitting to Long-Term ISO 27001 Compliance

In today’s digital landscape, where data breaches and cyber threats are prevalent, achieving ISO 27001 certification signifies an organization’s commitment to protecting sensitive information and mitigating risks effectively.

This article provides a walkthrough of the ISO 27001 certification process, highlighting its importance and providing recommendations for organizations to achieve certification. After reading this article, you should feel equipped with the knowledge of what it takes to successfully navigate the ISO 27001 certification process.

Component

Takeaway

Phases of the ISO 27001 certification process

The ISO 27001 process encompasses three distinct phases: implementation of the standard, auditing the ISMS, and maintaining the certification. All of these require the organization to have senior leadership support and thorough documentation.

Steps of the ISO 27001 certification process

The eight steps of ISO 27001 certification are preparing for the process, defining the scope of the ISMS, performing a risk assessment, implementing policies and controls, conducting information security training, performing a required internal audit of the work done in the previous steps, getting a certification audit, and maintaining the certification.

Be sure to document and automate, where possible, during each step to achieve and maintain certification efficiently.

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Why Obtain ISO 27001 Certification?

Organizations want ISO 27001 certification for various reasons, including multinational corporations aiming for a globally recognized standard, leadership commitment to improved security, and meeting compliance requirements. The certification applies to a broad range of use cases, from IT companies handling sensitive customer data to financial institutions safeguarding financial information. 

Benefits of Compliance and Consequences of Non-Compliance

ISO 27001 compliance brings benefits like enhanced internal communication about security, a decreased risk of data breaches, improved response to breaches, lower insurance premiums, enhanced risk management, positive brand reputation, and a competitive edge in the market.

ISO 27001 benefits

Non-compliance with ISO 27001 can prove costly, leading to unnecessary risk and damage to the business. This can manifest through non-conformity, an increased risk of data breaches, higher cyber insurance premiums, damage to brand reputation, and a competitive disadvantage in the industry. 

This is especially relevant as consumers and customers become more wary of companies with poor information security practices who end up in the news.

Understanding ISO 27001

ISO 27001 sets a benchmark for security requirements and controls that are designed to manage information security risks effectively. Unlike other security frameworks that offer broad guidelines, ISO 27001’s systematic approach tailors security measures to an organization’s specific needs. 

Understanding this framework involves examining how it mandates an information security management system (ISMS), ensuring not just point-in-time compliance but also an effective and continuously improving defense against existing and emerging threats.

“Using Drata easily saved us an excess of $100K a year by not having to bring on additional resources to manage the ISO 27001 journey. Having onboarding features integrated into the platform also shaved weeks off the process and expedited the time for our audit.” —Mike Schuman, Immediation

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Phases of the ISO 27001 Certification Process

The ISO 27001 certification process can be broken out into three distinct but equally important phases. These cover everything from the initial formal decision to implement ISO 27001 up through an external audit of the ISMS and continuous maintenance of the required controls:

  1. Implementation of the standard: Organizations establish and implement the necessary policies, procedures, and controls to meet ISO 27001 requirements.

  2. Auditing the ISMS: Independent auditors assess the effectiveness of the implemented ISMS against the applicable ISO 27001 controls identified by the risk assessment performed in phase 1.

  3. Maintenance of the certification: An organization must continually maintain and improve its ISMS to ensure ongoing compliance with ISO 27001 standards. This is best done continuously using automation.

The following table shows which steps each phase aligns to as part of the certification process:

Phase

Corresponding Step(s)

Implementation

Prepare for certification

Define the scope of the ISMS

Perform risk assessment

Implement policies and controls

Conduct training

Perform internal audit

Audit

Certification audit

Maintenance

Maintain certification

Steps of the Certification Process

There are eight specific steps within the three phases of ISO 27001 certification that are explained in more detail below.

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1. Prepare for the Certification Process

The very first step of the process is the one that will most likely determine the cost and time associated with the ISO 27001 certification process for the organization. Securing executive-level support and organizational buy-in can essentially make or break an organization’s attempt to achieve ISO 27001 certification due to the resource requirements from across the organization. 

It is also vital to understand the requirements of ISO 27001, allocate resources, and appoint a project team with a project leader equipped with the appropriate authority and responsibilities to ensure that the correct stakeholders are identified and brought into the project. Even though it is focused on information security, the certification will touch on many components of the organization, which requires documentation and subject matter expert (SME) input to ensure accuracy and timeliness. 

Additionally, this is the time to plan out how the organization will best address the controls in the standard by ensuring that the team fully understands the clauses and controls in Annex A as well as the more detailed guidance provided by the 27001 companion, ISO 27002. 

2. Define the Scope of the ISMS

Next, the organization must define the scope of the ISMS by determining its boundaries and applicability within the organization based on the types of data processed and the structure of the organization. 

Additionally, depending on the industry and structure of the organization and the data processed, the scope of the ISMS could be anything from a single business unit to the entire organization, which would determine the footprint of documentation, internal knowledge, and complexity of control implementation required. 

Other important considerations include aligning with business objectives, complying with legal and regulatory requirements, and including any outsourced processes or services.

3. Perform a Risk Assessment

Properly conducting and documenting a risk assessment can allow the organization to avoid a major headache as the certification progresses to the audit phase. While there is no mandated risk assessment methodology, there are best practices available to help with it

To perform a risk assessment in support of ISO 27001 certification, organizations should establish a cross-functional team that includes representatives from IT, senior leadership, department managers, legal, and compliance/audit. This ensures a comprehensive understanding of risks across the organization. 

The next step involves identification of threat-based risks to the organization’s critical assets, processes, and operations. The mapping of these risks is something which is increasingly becoming part of a larger automated risk management process. The identification of these threat-based risks includes analyzing them according to threat impact and likelihood. 

Based on the identified threats and associated risks, the organization must then document the assessment and corresponding risk treatment plans.

Organizations should then implement the applicable controls from ISO 27001 Annex A, documenting their application and the rationale for implementation. Additionally, for each control that is excluded there must also be a corresponding rationale for exclusion. Together these constitute the statement of applicability (SoA) which, in addition to the risk assessment, is another mandatory part of ISO 27001.

Controls should be continuously monitored and tested to ensure that they are working effectively and should be adjusted as needed, which means updates to the SoA and risk assessment for those items that have changed or are not operating as intended, which could lead to new risks. Regular reports should be provided to senior management and the board of directors on the effectiveness of controls and any updates to the risk treatment plan. 

This is a very important step as it serves to document the risks and show the future auditor that the organization has a plan for said risks, known as the risk treatment plan. This will describe the actions taken by the organization for risk response through four actions: modifying or mitigating the risk, avoiding the risk, sharing or transferring the risk, and/or accepting the risk.

Finally, organizations can consider using automated tools like Drata to streamline the risk assessment process, ensure consistency, and provide real-time monitoring and reporting. 

4. Implement Policies and Controls

With a better view of your organization’s security posture, risks, and control gaps from the risk assessment, it is now time to develop and implement policies, procedures, and controls to mitigate those identified risks while tightening up the controls that may not be implemented correctly or as efficiently as the organization deems necessary. 

5. Conduct Information Security Training

The vast majority of cyberattacks target what are considered the weakest links in the organization’s chain: humans. Due to this, it is imperative for all organizations to continuously provide training to employees and applicable contractors on information security policies, procedures, and best practices. 

ISO 27001 requires that an information security awareness program be in place for organization employees. This includes training employees on the organization’s own policies, processes, and procedures, which act not simply as a compliance step toward ISO 27001 certification but also as a collective control to protect against cyber attacks.

6. Perform an Internal Audit

Regarded by many as one of the most important parts of the certification process, this is the final step before the formal audit process begins and provides the organization a chance to measure the effectiveness of the controls it has implemented and ensure that the documentation collected is fit for an external audit. 

This is also an opportunity for the organization to regularly review and evaluate the effectiveness of the ISMS to identify areas for improvement, with a view to continuously improving not just for the upcoming audit but also looking beyond to the maintenance of the certification.

7. Get a Certification Audit

Now it’s showtime: The step where all of the hard work over the previous months and potentially years bears fruit for the organization. During an ISO 27001 audit, auditors gather evidence to assess the alignment of the information security management system (ISMS) with ISO 27001 requirements. 

This includes reviewing a multitude of documents, like security policies, risk assessments, the SoA, and risk treatment plans. Auditors also observe activities to see how policies are implemented and conduct interviews with staff to understand their awareness and the application of security policies.

The audit report summarizes results, including nonconformities (NCFs) and improvement opportunities, and is shared with stakeholders. Nonconformities are instances where the organization fails to meet specific ISO 27001 requirements and are recorded in detail for the audit report. Major NCFs prevent certification until resolved, while minor NCFs allow certification with corrective action plans. An opportunity for improvement (OFI) is a recommendation for improvement that does not prevent certification. 

Following the audit, auditors verify the implementation of corrective actions, leading to the issuance of an ISO 27001 Certificate once all requirements are met.

8. Maintain Certification

The audit is complete, and everything is finished, right? Not so fast. While the issuance of the ISO 27001 Certificate is a major cause to celebrate for an organization, it does not mean that performing risk assessments, reviewing and evaluating the effectiveness of controls, and other work needed to achieve and maintain certification is finished.

The organization must continuously monitor and maintain the ISMS to ensure ongoing compliance with ISO 27001 standards. This process is represented by the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle and ensures continuous improvement on the part of the organization. 

PDCA Cycle

The PDCA cycle (source)

Adhering to the PDCA cycle helps the organization when it comes to the required surveillance audits, which usually occur as separate annual audits with each one auditing 50% of the controls to ensure compliance. For example, in year 1 your organization may be deemed ISO 27001-compliant, followed by surveillance audits in year 2 and year 3. While the idea of additional audits may seem stressful, the surveillance audits should be seen as a benefit to organizations since they forge the commitment to improvement and demonstrate to customers, partners, and internal stakeholders the dedication and diligence of the organization to adhering to ISO 27001.

Best Practices

Pursuing ISO 27001 certification can be a daunting adventure. Fortunately, it is very much achievable for organizations that are determined to accomplish it, especially those who follow the best practices summarized in the following table and described in detail below.

Best practice

Description

Start early

Initiate the groundwork for the certification process early to avoid rushing and to ensure thorough preparation.

Automate, automate

Utilize automation tools to streamline and expedite the certification process, saving time and resources.

Continue to monitor and improve

Implement a system for ongoing monitoring and improvement of the ISMS to maintain compliance.

Involve the correct stakeholders

Engage mid- to senior-level managers who understand their departments best to ensure effective implementation.

Secure executive buy-in

Gain support from top-level executives to ensure organizational commitment of resources and authority to the certification process.

Document everything

Maintain comprehensive documentation of policies, procedures, and controls to demonstrate compliance and prove diligence.

Start Early

Initiating the certification process early allows ample time for thorough preparation, reducing the likelihood of rushed implementations or missed requirements. Be sure to identify key stakeholders who can bring a wealth of organizational knowledge to the project, allocate adequate resources to the project, and establish a realistic project timeline.

Automate, Automate

Automation tools can significantly streamline the certification process by automating tasks such as risk assessments, policy management, and compliance reporting. Consider utilizing software solutions specifically designed for ISO 27001 compliance, which can help manage documentation, track progress, and streamline audit preparation while providing a comprehensive dashboard for the appropriate leads to track everything necessary for ISO 27001. 

Involve the Correct Stakeholders

Engage mid- to senior-level managers from relevant departments to ensure their buy-in and participation in the certification process. These stakeholders possess valuable insights into departmental operations and can provide essential input for implementing effective security controls and efficiently addressing identified risks.

Secure Executive Buy-In

Obtain support from top-level executives to prioritize and allocate resources for the certification process. Executive sponsorship demonstrates organizational commitment to information security and facilitates the alignment of business objectives with ISO 27001 requirements. Without this top-level support, most organizations will fail in their initial journeys to achieving ISO 27001 certification.

Document Everything

Comprehensive documentation is essential for demonstrating compliance with ISO 27001 standards during certification audits. Maintain detailed records of policies, procedures, risk assessments, and controls implemented within the ISMS.

Continue to Monitor and Improve

Achieving ISO 27001 certification is not a one-time event but an ongoing commitment to information security. Implement mechanisms for continuous monitoring, regular internal audits, and proactive improvement to ensure that the ISMS remains effective and compliant over time.

Committing to Long-Term ISO 27001 Compliance

ISO 27001 certification is a comprehensive process that requires meticulous planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance. It sets a benchmark for security requirements and controls tailored to an organization’s specific needs. 

The certification process involves three main phases: implementing the standard, auditing the ISMS, and maintaining certification. Each phase is crucial and requires attention to detail and adherence to ISO 27001 standards.

The certification process begins with preparation, securing executive leadership support, and understanding the requirements of ISO 27001, such as the clauses and Annex A controls. Organizations must define the scope of the ISMS, perform a thorough risk assessment, and implement policies and controls to mitigate identified risks. Continuous monitoring and improvement of the ISMS are essential to ensure ongoing compliance with ISO 27001 standards.

During the certification audit, auditors gather evidence to assess the effectiveness of the ISMS. In this process, they identify nonconformities (NCFs), which are instances where the organization does not meet specific ISO 27001 requirements. Addressing these NCFs is crucial for the successful compliance and certification of the ISMS. Major NCFs prevent certification, while minor NCFs allow certification with corrective action plans. 

Following the audit, organizations must maintain the ISMS to ensure ongoing compliance with ISO 27001 standards. This will be tested as part of the surveillance audits, typically in year 2 and year 3 of the certification process. To achieve ISO 27001 certification, organizations should start early, automate processes where possible, continue to monitor and improve the ISMS, involve the correct stakeholders, secure executive buy-in, and document everything thoroughly. 

By following best practices and committing to continuous improvement, organizations can achieve and maintain ISO 27001 certification, demonstrating their commitment to information security and risk management to customers, competitors, and regulators as well as internally to their own employees and stakeholders.

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