JOnline: Information Technology Compliance: Past, Present and Future 

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Information technology compliance activities have evolved rapidly over the past decade. To help define the future of IT compliance, a look back at early efforts, combined with observations on today’s activities, is presented in this article.

A Brief Look Back

Figure 1Historically, IT departments’ roles in compliance (figure 1) was point-in-time focused or based on some significant event. Compliance efforts did not consider IT risk management as an umbrella framework or these efforts as part of a broader enterprisewide compliance function. Remember the ramp-up to Y2K? The mad rush of IT consultant and auditor activity to ensure that Y2K considerations were addressed in enterprise systems was the ultimate illustration of a one-time compliance pandemonium. Other regulatory requirements and audit activities such as industry-specific certifications (e.g., Payment Card Industry [PCI] standards) or support for a service provider function (e.g., Statement on Auditing Standards No. 70 [SAS 70] reports) have also been around for some time, but were typically tackled as an annual project and by a narrow set of individuals within IT.

Why was this so? The compliance framework for IT was focused mainly on the engineering, testing or build-related processes of developing applications, following either the Software Engineering Institute (SEI)’s framework or ISO 9001 as the basis for compliance. This was mainly attributed to the customized nature of enterprise systems, whether purchased and modified significantly, or developed completely in-house. This set of activities usually fell within a specialized group within IT and its coordination did not significantly impact the broader organization. Also, enterprise compliance was typically a set of activities that others in the organization cared about. Finance, legal and human resources had always had sustained compliance functions that they managed on an almost daily basis.

IT compliance has come a long way over the past decade. This is especially true in the years since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 burst onto the scene and gave public company IT departments their first real taste of playing a significant role in complying with a major enterprisewide regulatory requirement. For the first time, corporate executives were forced to view IT as a critical link for compliance success and IT staffs were educated on a rigorous set of control activities that must be designed, operated, tested and audited.

Mike Pearl, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’s advisory practice recalls, “In the late 1990s, comprehensive IT compliance programs were not even contemplated. Rather, IT reacted to specific compliance requests and usually in a fairly disorganized manner.”1

That was then, this is now. What do IT compliance programs look like in today’s public companies?

IT Compliance Today

As the world has moved away from custom applications to noncustomized packaged and managed applications, including Software as a Service offerings, the emphasis has been placed more on the change control and the operational activities required by IT. Coinciding with this movement was the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, specifically section 404, which forced companies to formalize controls over the production environments and shifted the burden from the build function to the run function. Arguably, the Sarbanes-Oxley IT general controls requirements have had a direct effect on the increasing success rate of IT outsourcing initiatives. With clear policies, standards and process controls in place, the ability for a third-party service provider to deliver services that meet predefined service level agreements (SLAs) as well as to demonstrate effective controls to an evidentiary standard has improved dramatically in the past five years.

At the same time, annual assessments for PCI and SAS 70 compliance have become mostly routine, changing only when business processes change or when merger, acquisition and divestiture actions are impacting the technology environment. For most accelerated filers, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance has matured and become routine as well. Public Company Accounting and Oversight Board Auditing Standard No. 5, which updated the original Auditing Standard No. 2 in May of 2007, relaxed some of the rigor around the impact of IT general controls on the overall Sarbanes-Oxley report. It helped some tasked with IT compliance to scope out some of the lower-risk IT systems and controls that were less directly linked to accurate financial reporting.

With a new sense of compliance confidence and experience, a variety of IT compliance models emerged to take on other areas of regulatory requirement. The most mature model is the one that has fully adopted an IT department ownership role of technology compliance efforts for the organization. The IT leaders consider compliance functions to be high priority for the department and organization overall and back that philosophy with resources and funding.

Another model, a “hybrid” model, is one where internal audit, IT and others in the organization share responsibility for IT compliance. This model usually results from the lack of a strong compliance organization within IT or an internal audit department that is unwilling to let go of its role in IT compliance. This model is probably the most prevalent in today’s organization and is a holdover from year two or three of Sarbanes-Oxley. In this model, there may be a few employees in the IT department who understand compliance and may want to take on a greater role, but lack the resources or executive-level commitment to grow the compliance function within IT. This model has the opportunity to evolve into a full-blown IT compliance function, but its fate relies on the level of importance the organization, and particularly IT leaders, attaches to IT compliance and risk management overall. This organization is somewhat proactive in its approach to compliance, but with so many involved, often an efficient IT compliance program is hampered by organizational bureaucracy and negative politics.

With the positive progress made by the organization described, some IT compliance efforts have made little progress in their maturity since the advent of compliance requirements. They continue to be reactive and fail to take advantage of any of the significant lessons learned over the past 10 years. In this model, the corporate internal audit function may be overseeing compliance as part of its overall annual audit plan and utilizing IT only in a “subject matter expert” capacity. IT usually views these compliance requirements as a necessary evil, distracting the IT department from its primary duties. Compliance activities in this model are viewed as adding little value to the organization overall.

Other models exist depending on the enterprise’s size, its regulatory compliance maturity and executive sponsorship of IT compliance initiatives. A strong overall corporate risk management function will sometimes enable IT to develop its own program, but comprehensive IT risk management programs are still immature in most public companies today.

Beyond theory and into practice, a survey was conducted in 2007 of IT and business leaders. The survey sought to gather empirical evidence on the perceptions of an alignment between IT and the business as a result of compliance efforts overall and specifically Sarbanes-Oxley efforts. The results of the study revealed that 63 percent of business leader respondents and 85 percent of IT leader respondents believe that compliance efforts, in general, have moderately or strongly influenced greater alignment within their organizations.2

In a webcast titled “Competitive Advantage Through Compliance: Making Sarbanes-Oxley Work for You,” the presenters discuss how much the legislation has cost companies to implement, and also what advantages above and beyond compliance can be achieved. Specifically, they state that the other benefits achieved are through efficiency in “tightening up infrastructure, including separation of duties, configuration management of systems, identity management” that leads to “business continuity, not just compliance.”3 The return on investment, as described by the presenters, can be realized much faster if the approach of making Sarbanes- Oxley a sustainable compliance program is taken, rather than a one-time project implementation, and business, and IT leaders work together in the achievement of common goals.

A director at a large financial services company charged with managing the major IT projects for the organization recently hired a small staff to manage the various compliance activities that require participation by the IT organization. She states, “Rather than sitting on the sideline and being a recipient of compliance requests, we have decided to be proactive and run the IT compliance program ourselves.”4 She goes on to say that, because of this structural addition to her department, coordination and alignment with overall business objectives are improving and helping IT become more relevant in the organization overall.

While levels of enthusiasm and participation by IT in the compliance efforts vary greatly, there does appear to be a shift toward more compliance ownership and less oversight from traditional compliance leaders (figure 2).

Figure 2

A Look Ahead

IT departments appear to be moving in one of two directions in relation to their philosophy of compliance and IT risk management. The first direction (figure 3), and the one that appears to be the most common, is recognition that IT compliance and risk management activities have improved employee behavior, strengthened the overall control environment and raised the prestige of the department. The departments following this direction are taking advantage of the lessons learned over the past decade and moving from a “project” mentality to a sustained compliance function. One IT director of an audit and compliance group at a large software company states, “In an increasingly regulated environment, the ability to demonstrate compliance day in and day out across the company is a requirement for our continued success. If we fail to implement effective controls, there can be significant consequences to corporate performance, reputation and customers. We are moving in a direction to ensure that adherence to IT standards is an everyday activity, not a once-a-year project.”5

Figure 3

Her company has created an entire audit and compliance function within the information security organization that not only manages quarterly Sarbanes-Oxley testing efforts, but also has implemented a broad set of audit activities to include all aspects of IT compliance efforts. She further states, “Compliance is a business process that needs to be managed end to end, not just the implementation of tools to manage point-in-time security risks and other compliance risks. Increasing levels of information security risks that jeopardize the integrity, availability and confidentiality of our data will continue to drive the need for strong evidence that controls are being monitored and risks are being managed.” This philosophy is being recognized by many software companies in today’s market that are moving rapidly to create comprehensive IT risk management platforms to assist with efficient and effective compliance monitoring. Most compliance tools are being designed with the recognition that enterprisewide IT compliance activities are growing in popularity and senior executives are interested in the monitoring and reporting these tools can provide.

There are companies moving in the other direction (see figure 4). While not that common, some companies are reverting to the “old” IT department, the one that does the minimum and does not value the positive side effects of the compliance activities to which it has grudgingly attended. These IT departments view compliance activities as a pass/ fail exercise, a cost-sink and not part of an overall IT risk management function that adds value to the company. While perfectly within their right to operate in this manner, they are likely missing a great opportunity to transform the IT department of the future.

Figure 4


Critical to determining which direction IT compliance takes is the leadership within IT and its recognition of the value this function brings to the organization overall. Value beyond the mere act of compliance is beginning to be identified, measured and reported. “IT departments that recognize that IT risk management practices can be implemented as an overarching framework from which a comprehensive IT compliance program operates will be able to achieve more cost-effective and meaningful operations from IT.”6 The question for each IT organization is what its department will look like 10 years from now.


1 Pearl, Michael; Personal interview, 10 November 2008
2 Kissinger, B.; Alignment of IT and the Business, VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller, 2008
3 Gulick, J.; “Competitive Advantage Through Compliance: Making Sarbanes-Oxley Work for You,” BNET Webcast, Retrieved 20 September 2006,
4 Anonymous, Personal interview, 3 February 2009
5 Rogers, Liz; Personal interview, 23 October 2008
6 Op cit, Pearl

Bryan C. Kissinger, Ph.D., CISA, CISSP
is a director with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and a member of the security group within its advisory practice. He has more than 12 years of experience in performing internal, external, operational and system audits. He has been responsible for leading external audits, designing and implementing internal audit outsourcing engagements, conducting strategic assessments of internal audit functions, and developing comprehensive IT audit plans. He has recently advised clients on revising their Sarbanes-Oxley programs, including setting scope, deliverable requirements, testing plans and design/ operating effectiveness evaluations. Additionally, he has advised clients on their IT readiness plans, protection of sensitive data and security strategy.

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