Four Ways Auditing Will Change in the ‘New Normal’
How have audits changed over the last year? And what impact will these changes have as we tentatively edge toward a post-pandemic world? These questions were top-of-mind during the recent Workiva - IIA Netherlands roundtable discussion between Workiva and a panel of experienced audit managers including John Bendermacher (Euroclear), Ronald Jansen (IKEA), Arjan Man (Atotech), and Norbert Kouwenberg (ABN AMRO, and chair of IIA-CPP). The conclusion drawn is that a lot is going to change. Here are the five areas where change will be most felt:
1. The importance of culture will be reinforced
Culture—in terms of gaining a lived experience of the way a company operates—plays a critical role in the audit process. With offices being closed for so long, and with auditors being forced to work remotely, the panellists shared a sense of loss for in-person interaction and expressed the challenges they faced in auditing social controls. Since the onset of the pandemic, the focus has, instead, been squarely placed on analytics and analysis of process. But, as Norbert shared, a company with no process and a perfect culture can still perform and meet objectives while a company with a broken culture and perfect processes can miss the mark. This sense of loss was echoed by John, who spoke about the fatigue that many are now feeling and noted that his role is becoming more consultative and less interactive. The phased return to pre-pandemic real-world engagement with company culture is something, therefore, that should be widely welcomed.
But the pandemic has forced change and caused a rethink of the role that culture plays within audits. With everything now being conducted remotely, a lot of the barriers that existed between auditors and their globally distributed auditees have been completely dismantled. Both Arjan and Ronald relayed that they felt more connected to fellow auditors and to auditees in other countries—now, it’s easier for teams to see each other and, despite not being on-premise, there have been marked improvements in understanding global cultural differences.
The loss of cultural engagement that has been experienced during the pandemic is something that will be rectified in time. More than that, auditors will use their experiences during lockdowns to develop a deeper understanding of culture. Auditors will need to be flexible in their approach to engage with an emerging hybrid workforce. The barriers that were dismantled during the pandemic should not be reinstated—the new ways of working that have been established should be carried over into the remainder of 2021 and beyond to facilitate the creation of well-rounded audits.
2. Digital transformation will continue to gain pace
The emergence of a hybrid workforce is now almost universally accepted. As a result, businesses will need to further accelerate their digital transformation initiatives to enable and secure their employees. While a lot of work was conducted digitally before 2020—Ronald shared that IKEA already didn’t use printers prior to the onset of the pandemic, and Norbert confirmed that they’ve been sharing information digitally for years despite all USB ports on corporate devices being disabled—many companies weren’t prepared for all communications to suddenly turn digital. The use of collaborative tools has been extended and new solutions have been introduced.
While the need for digital transformation is clear, and the agility and resilience of all impacted organisations should be applauded, one central question still lingers. Are these changes actually creating a more connected, more efficient workforce? For some, the promise of greater efficiency remains elusive. The difficulties of working in a pure digital environment—the need to be “always on”, working in isolation, having to conduct business from your kitchen table, managing childcare, spending all day in front of a screen—have been great inhibitors to progress.
For digital transformation to succeed, it needs to be sustainable. Innovation only works if it can deliver net benefits to the business. If we continue to have a pure digital focus, then burnout is inevitable. But if enablement solutions can integrate with the wider workplace ecosystem, to sit alongside and support the soft-touch conversations that drive office culture, then their benefits will become clear. Auditors need to face up to the reality that digital transformation projects are going to be a dominant force in the coming years—and determining the usefulness of these initiatives will become a key concern.
3. There will be a renewed focus on data science
The need for digital transformation within the audit process has also become clear. For John, the case for improved data science has been obvious for a long time. All panellists agreed that this is a change that would be happening regardless of COVID, but the new digital reality has brought it into focus. Norbert echoed the need for better data science practices, saying that it is now necessary for auditing. With strong data science, auditors are able to gain full coverage of the corporate environment. They will be able to go beyond just thinking of the company as part of a supply chain and see how the business operates as an organic part of the wider environment.
Data science can, and should, be used to enhance insight gained from audit management software. When done right, it’s invaluable.
4. Audit activities will be reprioritised
The panellists found that they could conduct a lot of their work fully remotely. At the beginning of the lockdowns, some audits were moved later in the year. When it became clear that the situation wasn’t going to change for quite some time, they found ways to continue their work despite not being able to be on premise. This adaptability has uncovered some truths that will ricochet into a new way of working. Arjan put a fine point on this, sharing that he will now focus on taking out all of the elements in their audit that really need interactive, informal, connection-building activities and use them in different types of audits. By making the audits more focussed, and questioning how often they really need to be on site, they will be able to work with greater agility.
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