You can’t have successful long-term digital transformation without the right approach to identity management. In fact, identity management operates much like digital transformation’s immune system: when working well, it’s almost invisible, but any malfunction can quickly cause the entire organism (or in this case, organisation) to collapse. That makes identity management one of, if not, the top priority for CEOs seeking to digitally transform their businesses – particularly as threats to organisational security and customer privacy continue to grow.

Identity management grapples with three questions: who has access to what data and applications, who should have access to that data and those applications, and how are those with access behaving (including user behaviour across key business applications)? Answering those three questions, however, has become incredibly complex in today’s high-velocity digital environment.

CEOs can’t afford to deprioritise identity management in their digital transformation strategies. The average cost of a data breach continues to rise, as do the variety and velocity of threats to data security that organisations face. Many of those breaches arise from vast growth not only in an organisations’ users, but also in its data stored in files, including documents, PDFs, presentations and other easily shareable, hard-to-track content. Governing access to that data is as important, if not more so, than securing access to corporate applications.

If identity management is the first line of protection against breaches, how can CEOs embed it into their digital transformations – particularly those that are already well under way? The first thing they can do is make identity management a priority for the entire C-suite, including getting both the CIO and the CSO on board. While these roles can sometimes be seen as conflicting, the CEO can impress the importance of governing its users’ access to applications and data, showcasing the value identity management brings to not only the organisation’s speed of business, but also its security.

CEOs must also recognise that in today’s digital transformation, identities exist far beyond the traditional ones that come to mind like employees, contractors and partners. As IT teams look to extend their capabilities with new technologies like software bots, they must be governed like any other identity as they also have access to critical corporate data. The right identity management program can assess the state of users – real or robotic – and their data and application accessibility in the organisation, and provide recommendations on how to plug the most critical gaps.

Finally, the C-suite should adopt an identity management program that provides the flexibility required to keep up with the changing pace of business. Implementing an identity strategy that allows organisations to keep track of all users, all applications and all data will help the organisation protect their digital initiatives as they grow, without significantly slowing down the pace of growth. In some cases, identity management can propel an organisation through digital transformation itself: technologies like machine learning and AI, for example, can substantially improve visibility of both acceptable access and suspicious activities in the organisation, and even identify opportunities for automation and greater IT efficiency.

The health of any digital transformation ultimately depends on its immune system. For identity management to work, CEOs must understand and promote its full and proper function and, by doing so, inoculate their businesses against many of the threats that often stop digital transformation in its tracks.