IAM and CIAM – What you need to know

On TechTalkTuesday last week we covered identity and access management (IAM). This week we touched on customer identity and access management (CIAM). Two very separate terms, IAM and CIAM are sometimes (misguidedly) used interchangeably. The articles for IAM and CIAM on TechTalkTuesday define the terms well. But there is always an opportunity for further clarification and a deeper understanding. 

Let’s dive in. 

There is a key functional differentiator between IAM and CIAM that can make it easier to understand them. 

  • IAM allows for the identity management of internal employees. 
  • CIAM allows for the identity management of external customers.  

It is important to keep in mind that IAM allows for the control of what an employee can and can’t do inside the secured corporate network. It also ensures that the systems within the network cannot be accessible to unauthorized individuals outside of the company. 

CIAM, on the other hand, involves the management of external identities. This could include customers, partners, consumers, contractors, or devices.  

On the surface, it may appear that IAM and CIAM can use similar platforms. In truth, the use cases are so distinct that it’s rare a solution will offer adequate support for both IAM and CIAM.  


Some of the key factors to consider about both IAM and CIAM include the following. 

  1. Flexibility of the platform 
  2. Scalability 
  3. User experience 
  4. Functionality 
  5. Security and privacy 
  6. ROI


1. Flexibility of the platform. One of the key differences between IAM and CIAM sits in how the environments themselves tend to be treated. In the IAM enterprise environment, it can take some time to make changes to the system as IAM systems tend to be inflexible; particularly legacy systems. It’s not common for legacy systems to be updated to keep up with the latest technology offerings and trends. Many may take the approach of, “It’s working, don’t touch it.”
This sits in contrast to a solution that is customer-facing. System features are more likely to be updated regularly. This can help an organization stand out and above the competition. CIAM is often designed with flexibility in mind so that organizations can keep pace with consumer trends.

2. Scalability. A significant differentiator between IAM and CIAM, scalability is important to be aware of. It’s rare that the number of employees in a company will match the consumer and end-users. As an example, your consumer-facing website could see hundreds of thousands of users each day. But your company may have just sixty employees. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the scalability requirements for both an IAM and a CIAM solution can vary significantly. It can be potentially problematic for a company to use an IAM solution if they have a customer-service service that has a large user base. An IAM solution is not going to be likely to offer the scalability needed to meet the needs of the business. 

3. User experience. The user experience (UX) of an IAM system is important, certainly. But it is not quite as critical as considering the UX of the CIAM system. Employees are typically trained on the systems that they need to use to do the functions of their jobs. However, customers often expect to have a positive experience from the moment they use your site or service. If your business delivers a poor customer experience, your customers are not going to stick around for long. With that in mind, the user experience should be considered one of the crucial factors of your CIAM solution.

4. Functionality. Your IAM solution should include a few vital functionalities that will help to promote a positive experience for your workforce. 

  • Single sign-on 
  • Access management 
  • Workflows 
  • Authentication methods 
  • Employee provisioning 

CIAM solutions, on the other hand, will offer a focus on the customer needs. With that, your CIAM solution should include focused functionalities that are designed for the needs of the customer. They should include but also extend past IAM functionalities. Some of these additional features could include the following. 

  • Robust authentication 
  • Authentication methods with a low friction use 
  • Identity directories 
  • And more. 

5. Security and privacy. When it comes to the identity of the employee, organizations would often prefer to have control over access management and internal roles and authorizations. The user should not be able to dictate the types of systems and files that they are able to access. 

For the customer with an external identity, there is the need to feel that they have full control of how their personal data is shared. Privacy and security play a strong role in the user’s ability to trust in the business they are interacting with. CIAM has the ability to offer transparency for the user, and also often the potential for the user to manage how their personal info is shared. This can provide that all-important element of trust.  

6. ROI. For decision-makers, this one can be key. Does the deployed solution help to bring in revenue for the business? The IAM system, with a strong focus on the workforce, is not designed to bring in revenue. It should, however, have a marked impact on keeping operational costs reasonable, managing risk, and working to achieve compliance.  

On the other side, a well-planned CIAM solution could help to boost the bottom line in a number of ways. This may include helping to save on the costs of support and with the ability to enable innovative digital services. CIAM should help to boost privacy compliance and so much more. Including custom engagement, conversions, and revenue. A solid CIAM solution may even help to create new opportunities for revenue.  


In truth, the core technology that supports both IAM and CIAM may have some similarities. The functionality that is built on top of this core technology is what differentiates them.