A Complete Guide to the NIST Risk Management Framework

A Complete Guide to the NIST Risk Management Framework

May 14, 2024
| Leaman Crews
| Incident Handling

Information security is more important than ever in the business world. Most businesses implement a risk management strategy to help secure everything from their front door to their supply chain management process. However, information security concerns can be harder to address. This has highlighted the need for comprehensive risk management and incident response plans. However, building these plans from the ground up can take time and produce mixed results. 

Many organizations want to turn to an established methodology for guidance. The NIST Risk Management Framework (RMF) has emerged as a popular way to manage risk and strengthen incident response plans. Since organizations of all types and sizes use it—from government organizations to large enterprises and small businesses—the NIST RMF is an excellent choice for any business that needs to solidify its cybersecurity incident response plans.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, initially developed the NIST RMF for federal agencies, but the private sector has widely adopted its excellent approach to risk and incident response. If you’ve never looked into the NIST Risk Management Framework or any incident response plans, keep reading. Below is a complete guide to everything you need to know about the NIST Risk Management Framework.

What is the NIST Risk Management Framework?

In 2002, the U.S. Congress passed a law known as the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). Part of the law tasked the National Institute of Standards and Technology with creating risk management and incident guidelines for all federal agencies. The result was the NIST Risk Management Framework covering cybersecurity, privacy, and incident response practices. Its primary purpose is to provide a standardized yet flexible and customizable approach to risk management. The first version appeared in 2014, and  NIST Incident Response 2 was released on August 8, 2023. Smaller and more specific NIST risk management guides have also been developed, like the NIST AI Risk Management Framework, which was also released in 2023 (NIST).

What are the Key Components of the NIST Risk Management Framework?

The five key components of the NIST Risk Management Framework are:

  • Identification: The NIST RMF starts with identifying risks to an organization, whether they be security, legal, or strategic risks.
  • Measurement and assessment: This component describes how to measure or assess the identified risks.
  • Mitigation: For risks that require action, the NIST RMF recommends developing mitigation plans.
  • Reporting and monitoring: The NIST RMF includes processes for reporting risks and monitoring mitigation progress.
  • Governance: This component ensures that risk management policies and procedures are implemented.

These components ensure organizations develop and properly document and implement information security policies and procedures. Although designed for federal agencies, it’s easy to see from these seven general steps that it can benefit any organization’s information security response plans. That’s because the NIST RMF follows a risk-based approach that helps manage information security incidents at any organization.

How Does the NIST Risk Management Framework Help Organizations Manage Risk Effectively?

Since it is a comprehensive framework, the NIST RMF helps organizations manage and mitigate risks effectively. The NIST framework is a well-structured and tested process that builds a strong risk management foundation. The categorization and mitigation techniques described in the NIST RMF are easily adapted and customized to organizations of all types and sizes, ensuring that they are effective regardless of where they are used.

Following the NIST RMF allows businesses and their leadership teams to gain a deeper understanding of the risks they face. This, in turn, helps them to make more informed decisions. The NIST framework also encourages communication between an organization’s employees and stakeholders, providing a platform for effective collaboration.

Exploring the Steps of the NIST Risk Management Framework

To implement the NIST Risk Management Framework in your organization, you must follow its six core steps. Below is a guide to each of the six steps of the RMF. s. Each step can be customized to your organization’s specific needs so that your policies match the needs of your business, employees, and customers. Here are the NIST RMF steps:

Step 1: Categorize System

In the categorization step, you classify the system to be evaluated for risk. Categorize the system’s associated information assets based on their sensitivity and the potential impact on your organization. This involves analyzing data sensitivity, assessing the potential impact on confidentiality, integrity, and availability, and ultimately assigning security categories.

Step 2: Select Controls

Once you’ve categorized your system, the next step is to select and tailor security controls based on its categorization and specific needs. You’ll need to reference NIST SP 800-37 to choose the appropriate security controls and then customize them to align with your system’s unique characteristics and operational environment.

Step 3: Implement Controls

In the implementation step, you put the selected security controls into practice within your system. This involves creating a security plan that details how each control will be implemented, monitored, and managed. Subsequently, you integrate these controls into the system’s design and operations.

Step 4: Assess Controls

To ensure the effectiveness of the implemented controls, you must conduct security assessments. This begins with developing a Security Assessment Plan (SAP) that outlines the assessment objectives, methods, and scope. The SAP serves as a guide as you perform security assessments to evaluate the controls’ effectiveness and compliance with security requirements.

Step 5: Authorize System

Following the assessment phase, review your findings and decide whether to adopt the policies. You can fine-tune any aspects that don’t suit your business.

Step 6: Monitor Controls

Develop a continuous monitoring plan encompassing regular security assessments, vulnerability scanning, and incident response procedures. Ensure prompt reporting of security incidents, vulnerabilities, and compliance deviations, and take corrective actions as needed to maintain ongoing security and compliance.

These six steps will allow your organization to effectively manage information security risks and ensure resilience to potential threats. If you have appropriately customized the NIST RMF to your organization’s needs, only regular maintenance of the policies should be necessary. However, keeping your implementation team active doesn’t hurt, so team members can review how well the RMF works at your organization.

Benefits and Advantages of the NIST Risk Management Framework

While there are other risk management frameworks that organizations can follow, the NIST RMF has several benefits and advantages. As a proven and time-tested framework, the NIST RMF offers a stable approach to managing risk that has proven successful at many different organizations.

Some of the benefits and advantages of the NIST RMF include:

  • Customization: The NIST RMF allows businesses, government agencies, and other organizations to tailor security controls and risk management practices to their specific needs.
  • Compliance: The framework aligns with cybersecurity standards, legal guidelines, customer requirements, and various regulations. Adopting the NIST RMF is an excellent way to validate compliance with an organization’s requirements.
  • Scalability: Due to its flexibility, the NIST RMF can scale to organizations of all sizes and types. Other risk management frameworks tend to be industry-focused or meant for organizations of certain sizes.

In addition, the NIST RMF promotes a proactive approach to risk management thanks to its focus on risk identification and categorization. Organizations following the framework’s six steps gain an understanding of their most severe risks. They can then form incident response plans before disaster strikes. The emphasis on continuous monitoring in the RMF helps stop emerging threats in real-time.

The NIST RMF has several advantages over competing risk management frameworks. Its widespread adoption means there is a large community providing resources and expertise that other frameworks lack. Since the RMF is well-known and recognized, customers gain confidence when they see a company use it for risk management. A proper NIST RMF implementation provides documentation of all incident response plans and actions, promoting openness and transparency.

Challenges and Considerations of the NIST Risk Management Framework

Even though the NIST framework is well-suited for most scenarios, it is not without its challenges. Organizations should consider the change management component when adopting any risk management framework. Implementing the NIST RMF will likely require significant changes to a company’s workflows, business processes, and even technology stack.

Another consideration is the resources required for a successful NIST implementation. The framework is complex and comprehensive, which requires input from team members all across the organization. Time spent on a NIST RMF implementation will mean key personnel will be pulled from their regular jobs. Depending on the company and the industry involved, there may even be significant costs required to properly implement the NIST RMF.

Case Studies and Success Stories of the NIST Risk Management Framework

The NIST website features several case studies and success stories from organizations that implemented the RMF. Among them are:

The University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) bolstered its cybersecurity procedures by adopting NIST. KUMC established an Office of Information Security (OIS) because of the sensitive nature of patient data. According to OIS staff, the entire KUMC organization now understands that cybersecurity is a shared responsibility (NIST, 2019).

The Multi-State-Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) aids state and local governments with cybersecurity practices. By implementing the NIST cybersecurity framework across all member organizations, MS-ISAC now has a standard to measure the effectiveness of security and privacy programs (NIST, 2021).

Learn About the NIST Risk Management Framework in the EC-Council Certified Incident Handler (E|CIH)

NIST Risk Management provides high-level guidelines for risk management and incident response. However, incident handling is rapidly becoming an in-demand career field. If you’re interested in mastering the art of incident response, look to the EC-Council Certified Incident Handler (E|CIH) certification course.

Designed in coordination with cybersecurity and incident response experts, the E|CH program is perfect for those seeking an incident handling career. The E|CIH goes beyond the basics to cover eight stages of incident handling, including evidence gathering and forensic analysis. In the E|CIH program, you’ll learn with hands-on activities delivered in labs and the EC-Council Cyber Range. As it covers various security incidents, the E|CIH is the best way to become a top incident response professional.


  • NIST. (2019, February 21). Success Story: University of Kansas Medical Center. https://www.nist.gov/cyberframework/success-stories/university-kansas-medical-center
  • NIST. (2021, May 12). Success Story: Multi-State – Information Sharing and Analysis Center. https://www.nist.gov/cyberframework/success-stories/ms-isac
  • NIST. AI RISK MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORK. https://www.nist.gov/itl/ai-risk-management-framework

About the Author 

Leaman Crews is a former newspaper reporter, publisher, and editor with over 25 years of professional writing experience. He is also a former I.T. director specializing in writing about tech in an enjoyable way. 

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