What is IAM? 

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a framework of business processes, policies, and technologies to manage electronic or digital identities. IAM frameworks allow Information Technology (IT) managers to control which users can access critical information within an organization, and when. 

Technologies used for IAM enable IT managers to store profile and identity data safely and carry out data governance functions to ensure that only the relevant and necessary data is shared. Those technologies include: 

  • Two-factor authentication (2FA)
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA)
  • Privileged access management (PAM)

Key concepts of IAM

Understanding IAM relies on understanding its two key concepts: authentication and authorization

Authentication refers to how an organization verifies that someone is who they claim to be. A typical example of authentication is the username-password combination. However, this method is generally viewed as outdated by security professionals, as it is susceptible to many attack techniques. MFA is steadily replacing traditional passwords, bolstering them with authentication methods such as passkeys sent to a user’s phone, or biometrics. 

Authorization refers to how an organization decides which users have access to what resources. Some users, such as system administrators, have elevated permissions that grant them access to restricted assets. Authorization methods ensure that only the right users can access the right resources. 

Types of IAM 

Organizations typically have three classes of users with different identity needs: their workforce, business partners, and customers. Each requires a distinct approach to identity management. The three primary IAM approaches are: 

Workforce IAM  

Workforce or employee IAM (WIAM) controls how employees and other internal partners gain access to organizational resources. Most organizations use multiple, disparate applications, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, so organizations should look for a WIAM solution that will integrate across their entire environment. 

Customer IAM 

Customer IAM (CIAM) controls how users access an organization’s external applications. CIAM solutions typically leverage single sign-on technology (SSO), which enables users to sign in with their social logins. Concerned with more than just the end user’s login experience, CIAM platforms gather information to build an identity profile and improve their offerings. However, collecting data in this manner means CIAM solutions are subject to extensive data privacy laws. 


Business-to-business (B2B) IAM is the most complex and specialized identity and access management form. B2B IAM solutions control how users from separate organizations access one another’s online resources. As large organizations run different back-end technology stacks, tailor-made identity solutions often falter when on-boarding multiple large companies. For this reason, many organizations opt for third-party IAM solutions to efficiently combine identity with any provider using any technology. 

The Future of IAM 

As organizations increasingly opt for remote or hybrid working models, identity has become infinitely more complex. In most cases, on-premises IAM solutions are no longer suitable. In the coming years, we will see more organizations considering cloud-based IAM options. 

Similarly, budget and resource limitations have made identity management increasingly difficult for many organizations. As a result, many will choose managed IAM solutions, turning to Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs) to deploy and manage their IAM solutions. 

We’ll also likely see more decentralized identity solutions which use blockchain technology to grant customers and employees self-sovereign identities. These decentralized identity solutions use an identity wallet to protect users’ private information from third parties, while authenticating and reducing the need for multiple identities.  This could be a relief for an identity-weary population.

For more essential cybersecurity definitions, check out our other blogs below:  

21 Essential Cybersecurity Terms You Should Know

40+ Cybersecurity Acronyms & Definitions

Return to Cybersecurity Glossary

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