blog-hero-background-image
Third Party Risk Management

NIST CSF Maturity Levels: Everything You Need to Know

backdrop
Table of Contents

Join thousands of professionals and get the latest insight on Compliance & Cybersecurity.


This in-depth guide shares everything you need to know about NIST CSF maturity levels to help you implement a robust cybersecurity program for your organization.

Today’s digital landscape is more volatile than ever and cyber threats aren’t only looming large but are also evolving rapidly. To safeguard sensitive data and critical systems, you must adopt a mature cybersecurity program. 

The cybersecurity program must also be dynamic and adaptable to continuously tackle both the latest cyber threats and potential threats and remain relevant. That’s why the NIST cybersecurity framework maturity levels were introduced.

These levels of maturity help to gauge how robust your cybersecurity program is when it comes to identifying, detecting, and responding to cyber threats—and recovering from an incident. Ultimately, this helps to improve your organization’s cybersecurity posture.

Here’s a lowdown on NIST cybersecurity framework maturity levels.

What is NIST CSF Maturity Levels?

NIST cybersecurity framework maturity levels are a way for organizations to gauge the strength of their cybersecurity controls and protocols for protecting, identifying, detecting, responding, and recovering from cyber threats over time.

They are part of the NIST CSF purposely designed to help organizations by guiding and providing them with a roadmap to enhance their cybersecurity posture.

The framework consists of four distinct maturity levels, each representing a higher degree of maturity and capability in managing cybersecurity risks.

i. Partial 

This is the first implementation tier where the organization hasn’t yet implemented a structured approach to cybersecurity risk management. Due to the lack of a structured cybersecurity risk management process, communicating and managing cybersecurity risks becomes difficult. 

At this level, your security team has limited awareness of cybersecurity risks, and the implemented cybersecurity program isn’t fully integrated hence threats are countered reactively. So you need a formalized and documented program that outlines proper cybersecurity risk management policies for identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks.

These policies help your organization develop mitigation strategies and establish a risk-based approach to cybersecurity risk management.

ii. Risk-Informed

At the risk-informed level of the NIST implementation, it means you have started to implement a more comprehensive cyber risk management program for your organization. 

This means that there is awareness of risks at the organizational level and some security controls and policies are in place to safeguard digital assets. Still, management counters risks as they occur. In other words, the implemented cybersecurity program is still reactive in nature.

Therefore, you need formalized cyber risk management processes and collaboration with external stakeholders to strengthen your cybersecurity posture. By proactively identifying and mitigating cyber risks.

iii. Repeatable

At this level, your organization has a structured approach to cybersecurity risk management. This means that management has documented repeatable processes for managing cyber threats and can adapt these processes to address potential threats that could emerge. 

Also, it means management can regularly review and update cybersecurity practices based on changes in the cybersecurity landscape or business regulatory environment. 

At this level, your organization understands its cybersecurity requirements and goals, and has effective cybersecurity controls in place to protect critical software assets. 

You also have a well-functioning security team with the knowledge and skills to effectively counter cybersecurity incidents.

Besides, your organization can actively monitor and assess its cybersecurity posture based on predictive indicators. 

In other words, at level 3, your organization has a mature and proactive approach to cybersecurity risk management.

Typically, this is the minimum level your organization needs to achieve since it provides a high level of protection against potential and emerging threats.

iv. Adaptive

Adaptive is the final level where the organization has established a fully proactive cybersecurity posture. 

Your cybersecurity program can dynamically adapt security practices based on past and current cybersecurity threats, including lessons learned and predictive indicators. 

At this level, your security team implements a continuous improvement process—such as integrating advanced cybersecurity technologies and practices and actively adapting to an evolving cybersecurity landscape. 

The team relies heavily on advanced analytics to provide insights and best practices for strengthening the cybersecurity posture of your organization.

Furthermore, information is shared with key stakeholders (internal and external) which provides real-time insights and understanding of the cybersecurity landscape.

Importance of NIST CSF Maturity Levels

To understand the importance of NIST cybersecurity maturity levels, you can think of how you use the dipstick in your car.

Normally, the dipstick will tell you the level and quality of your engine oil so you can know when you need to change your oil. Equally, the NIST CSF maturity levels provide your organization with a clear roadmap for improving your cybersecurity posture.

By progressing through the maturity levels, your organization can implement an active cybersecurity program to identify and mitigate current and anticipated cybersecurity risks.

Here are a few potential benefits of implementing NIST CSF maturity levels:

i. Increased Awareness of Cybersecurity Risks

NIST cybersecurity framework maturity levels help in creating awareness of potential cybersecurity risks and aligning practices effectively. 

This helps organizations establish effective programs for identifying and countering cyber threats and enhancing the protection of critical infrastructure.

ii. Prioritized Cybersecurity Efforts

NIST CSF maturity levels enable organizations to identify cybersecurity gaps and assign resources accordingly. This way, organizations can prioritize efforts on areas that need improvement, ensuring that cybersecurity measures are allied with their risk appetite and overall goals.

iii. Increased Coordination and Risk Management Communication

Effective implementation of NIST CSF maturity levels enables increased coordination and communication between internal and external stakeholders when implementing cybersecurity practices. 

This leads to proactive identification and mitigation of cyber risks which leads to a more robust cybersecurity program.

iv. Continuous Improvement of Cybersecurity Practices

The cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving; hence organizations need to implement a dynamic cybersecurity program to respond to cyber threats and adapt to changes.

Successful implementation of maturity levels enables organizations to continuously improve their cybersecurity risk management practices. This enables organizations to address current and emerging cybersecurity risks quickly while aligning their efforts with business goals and priorities. 

v. Provides a Clear Roadmap for Improvement

The levels can guide organizations in establishing a structured approach to enhancing their cybersecurity processes. This ensures consistent implementation of cybersecurity measures while facilitating accountability at every step. 

The roadmap also helps organizations to monitor their progress, set objectives, and continuously assess and improve their cyber posture.

NIST CSF Maturity Model

The NIST CSF (cybersecurity framework) maturity model is a vital tool designed to aid organizations in evaluating and enhancing their cyber posture by strengthening their cybersecurity risk management policies and practices.

This is especially important given the rise of cyber threats— the National KE-CIRT/CC reported over 900 million cyber threat events during the three months between January and March 2024 alone.

KE CIRT/CC Report of Cyber Threats

These statistics emphasize the importance of implementing comprehensive cybersecurity frameworks.

The cybersecurity maturity model can help you implement an organized approach to strengthen your organization’s cybersecurity capabilities. It is designed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to provide organizations with best practices, guidelines, and standards for preventing, detecting, and responding to cyber threats.

As cyber-attacks become more frequent and sophisticated, organizations need to implement proactive cybersecurity programs. Adopting the NIST CSF Maturity Model empowers organizations to enhance their risk management processes and safeguard valuable digital assets.  

Generally, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework Maturity Model encompasses the following core functions:

Cybersecurity Maturity Models

Source

Each function describes vital aspects of an organization’s cybersecurity program that must be addressed to achieve a holistic cybersecurity posture.

Before we talk about the stages of the NIST CSF Maturity Model, let’s take a closer look at its core functions:

Identify

This function aims to identify an organization’s cybersecurity risks and their impact on vital organizational assets and business operations. This is achieved through gathering information, assessing risks, and establishing risk management processes. 

Ultimately, this helps to identify and manage cyber risks specific to the organization which minimizes the likelihood of successful cyberattacks.

Protect

This function focuses on executing security defenses to strengthen the security and integrity of critical assets and safeguard against potential cyber threats. It emphasizes developing security measures and controls to reduce potential risks. 

Detect

This function encompasses implementing monitoring systems and processes to detect cybersecurity activities as early as possible to reduce their business impact. The systems are designed to continually monitor and analyze system operations, network traffic, and security to identify any malicious activities.

Respond

This function focuses on designing and executing systems and practices for addressing cybersecurity events as soon as they happen. This involves a comprehensive security event response plan, setting up communication procedures, and carrying out consistent drills to evaluate the effectiveness of the response plan. 

This is to ensure that the plan is well-defined and robust to detect and respond to cybersecurity threats effectively and minimize their impact. 

Recover

This function involves all the processes and cybersecurity procedures established to restore cybersecurity systems after an attack. It focuses on lessening interruption caused by a system attack and accelerating the recovery process.

This function requires organizations to set up and maintain proper backup systems, carry out system restores, and execute tactics for efficient recovery. Besides, analysis and lessons obtained from malicious events are also outlined to enhance future recovery plans. 

Stages of the NIST Maturity Model 

Technically, there are five critical stages established by the cybersecurity maturity assessment framework. These stages are designed to help organizations evaluate how well their system security and processes are optimized. 

Each stage highlights the processes an organization has to undertake to constantly enhance its security defenses. Let’s have a detailed view of each stage.

The Initial Stage

The initial stage is like your first day in a driving school where you don’t know anything. Likewise, at this stage, you’re not well aware of cybersecurity. 

At this level, you need to explore security resources to understand your current security posture. You also need a higher financial investment to bolster safeguards. 

However, you're committed to shielding your critical infrastructure from malware and minimizing its impact.

Here, you’ll need to invest in robust antivirus and solutions for endpoint detection and response. 

These solutions not only repel known threats automatically but also detect and prevent new, elusive attacks that traditional antivirus solutions often overlook. 

Aligning with cybersecurity frameworks and maturity models, and adhering to regulatory environment requirements, enhances your ability to fortify your defenses effectively.

The Repeatable Stage

When you enter the second level of the NIST maturity model, you recognize the importance of having well-documented processes and strengthening your security systems with more layers.

You align the two critical elements of your cybersecurity architecture (endpoint detection and response (EDR) and next-generation antivirus (NGAV) with your cyber risks. 

With the real-time insights obtained, you can swiftly spot and thwart security vulnerabilities the moment they happen. At this stage, your response plan should be more proactive than reactive.

The Defined Stage

At the defined stage, your organization has a well-established and professional security team and a documented cybersecurity program. This means you are well-equipped to effectively identify and alleviate security threats.

The Managed Stage

You now have an adaptive security program that can address both current, potential, and future threats.

Your security team can combine endpoint data with all your security systems, gain valuable insights, and integrate these insights into your future updates. Your organization’s security team can develop watchlists with the help of appropriate tools to address any new issues swiftly.

The Optimized Stage

This is the final stage of the NIST CSF Maturity Model where your organization has detailed, efficiently managed, and unified processes 

At the optimized stage, you can evaluate your system’s effectiveness, automate processes, and harmonize human insights with technical competence, all while maintaining regulatory compliance.

How to Improve NIST CSF Maturity Levels in Your Organization

Here are practical tips for achieving greater security maturity with the NIST CSF.

1. Conduct Rapid Assessment

The first step for enhancing your NIST CSF maturity levels is to understand your organization’s current cybersecurity posture. In this case, you’ll need to evaluate your organization’s security practices and processes based on the core functions to uncover areas that need improvement.

You’ll need to conduct a rapid assessment to understand your crucial business environment and align your cybersecurity efforts with your business requirements.

This assessment acts as an evaluation tool, helping you identify gaps and areas needing improvement. Conducting a quick but thorough evaluation of your cybersecurity posture provides a clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses.

Start by examining the foundational elements of your cybersecurity strategy, including asset management, access control, and data protection. 

This approach helps you move beyond reactive approaches and begin formulating action plans. Rapid assessment involves gathering data on your existing controls, policies, and technologies, and then comparing them against the NIST CSF standards. 

This process highlights the differences between your current practices and the best practices recommended by NIST. 

For effective assessment, you’ll need tools and processes such as self-assessment questionnaires, third-party audits, or gain insights from cybersecurity experts. 

2. Develop a Maturity Roadmap

Once you know your current NIST CSF score, the next step is to set your goals with a target maturity roadmap. A roadmap serves as a strategic guide, outlining the action plans needed to progress from your current state to your desired maturity level. 

Start by defining what higher levels of maturity look like for your organization, taking into account your crucial business environment and business requirements. 

Develop a clear vision of the target state for each foundational element of your cybersecurity framework, such as risk management, threat intelligence, and incident response. 

Translate this vision into specific, measurable goals, and break down these goals into essential actions that can be prioritized and scheduled. 

Use the roadmap to plot out strategic actions over a defined timeframe, ensuring each step logically builds on the previous one. Regularly review and adjust your roadmap to respond to changes in the threat landscape or organizational needs. 

This approach shifts your organization from reactive approaches to proactive planning, enabling you to systematically enhance your cybersecurity posture.

3. Implement Foundational Cybersecurity Practices

The next thing is to execute foundational cybersecurity practices. These practices form the bedrock of your cybersecurity efforts. They can include initial actions such as establishing strong access controls, conducting employee training programs, implementing robust data protection measures, etc.

Focus on these foundational elements to build a solid base that supports advanced cybersecurity capabilities. Begin by addressing basic security hygiene, such as patch management and secure configurations. 

Ensure that all systems and applications are up-to-date with the latest security patches to prevent exploitation of known vulnerabilities. Implement access controls to restrict unauthorized access and safeguard sensitive information. 

Develop a culture of security awareness through training programs that educate employees on identifying and responding to threats. These action steps not only strengthen your security posture but also align with business requirements and prepare you for more advanced measures. 

Executing foundational practices makes your cybersecurity program resilient and capable of evolving with emerging threats. 

4. Enhance Incident Response Capabilities

Enhancing your organization’s incident response capabilities is vital for advancing your NIST CSF maturity levels. Start by developing and refining your response process, which involves creating a well-defined incident response plan. 

This plan should include clear action steps for detecting, analyzing, and mitigating security incidents. Ensure that your incident response team is well-trained and equipped with the necessary tools and resources to handle various types of incidents. 

Use evaluation tools to test and validate your incident response procedures through regular drills and simulations. These exercises help identify weaknesses in your response process and provide opportunities to refine your action plans. 

Focus on integrating your incident response capabilities with your overall security strategy to create a cohesive approach. 

By continuously improving your incident response capabilities, you not only protect your crucial business environment but also ensure compliance with business requirements and align with the NIST CSF. 

Robust incident response is a cornerstone of a mature cybersecurity program, and investing in these capabilities significantly boosts your overall NIST CSF maturity.

5. Continuously Improve and Adapt Your Defenses

Cyber threats are constantly evolving hence you should continuously improve your cyber defenses. 

Here, you should focus on reviewing and enhancing your cybersecurity practices regularly, observing developing threats and technologies, and working with insights obtained from cybersecurity events.

Implement comprehensive monitoring systems to track your security posture in real time and detect any anomalies or potential threats. Use these systems as an evaluation tool to assess the effectiveness of your cybersecurity controls and processes. 

Regularly measure your performance against established benchmarks and business requirements to ensure that you are meeting your security goals. Analyze the data collected to identify trends and areas needing improvement. 

Develop action plans that outline essential actions and strategic actions for addressing any identified gaps. Establish a feedback loop where findings from monitoring and measurement activities directly inform updates to your cybersecurity strategy and practices. 

This approach shifts your organization from reactive approaches to a more dynamic, adaptive model that continuously evolves with the changing threat landscape. 

By focusing on continuous improvement, you not only enhance your NIST CSF score but also strengthen your overall security posture, ensuring that your organization remains resilient and well-protected in a constantly evolving digital environment.

How to Become NIST Compliant 

To become NIST compliant, it is essential to understand what NIST compliance entails and who is required to adhere to these standards.

NIST compliance refers to an organization's adherence to the guidelines and standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This includes following specific security controls and protocols to ensure the protection of sensitive information and systems.

It is recommended that any organization or business that handles sensitive information, such as personally identifiable information (PII) or financial data, be NIST compliant.

This includes government agencies and private companies, as well as defense contractors, educational and research institutions, financial and health services organizations, and telecommunication service providers.

Becoming NIST compliant offers numerous benefits, including enhanced security posture, reduced risk of cyber attacks and data breaches, increased trust and credibility with customers and partners, and compliance with laws and regulations related to data security.

To make your organization NIST compliant, you must follow the guidelines and standards set by NIST and implement the recommended security controls. This involves conducting risk assessments, developing security policies and procedures, and performing regular audits to ensure compliance. Additionally, you should regularly review and update your NIST compliance to ensure you follow the most current security standards and guidelines

Use Cyber Sierra to Improve Your Cybersecurity Posture

To enhance your NIST CSF maturity levels you need a robust tool that can instill automation, continuity, and intelligence in your cybersecurity program. This is where Cyber Sierra comes in.

Cyber Sierra's AI-powered cybersecurity platform has a pre-built NIST compliance module to help you identify gaps in your existing control measures. 

You have the flexibility to use our pre-mapped controls or create your own customized controls. 

By integrating these controls with our automated testing suite, you can achieve a tailored compliance outcome that seamlessly combines customization and automation.

Book a demo today to see how Cyber Sierra can help you comply with the NIST CSF framework.

  • Third Party Risk Management
  • CISOs
  • CTOs
  • Cybersecurity Enthusiasts
  • Enterprise Leaders
  • Startup Founders
Srividhya Karthik

Srividhya Karthik is a seasoned content marketer and the Head of Marketing at Cyber Sierra. With a firm belief in the power of storytelling, she brings years of experience to create engaging narratives that captivate audiences. She also brings valuable insights from her work in the field of cybersecurity and compliance, possessing a deep understanding of the challenges and pain points faced by customers in these domains.

A weekly newsletter sharing actionable tips for CTOs & CISOs to secure their software.


Thank you for subscribing!

Please check your email to confirm your email address.

Find out how we can assist you in
completing your compliance journey.

toaster icon

Thank you for reaching out to us!

We will get back to you soon.