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​​Do You Have Data Fever?

When it comes to gathering information, we have to remember that more is not always better.

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​A new internal auditor receives his latest assignment. His manager asks, “How are you going to approach the review of this area?” The auditor responds, “I want to test this, and I want to test that, and I want to test the other thing.” The manager asks why the auditor wants to perform those tests. Excitedly, the auditor answers, “Because that’s where all the information is.”

This scenario illustrates a common mistake made by new auditors — seeking to jump in without considering the risks, the processes, the criteria, or even the audit objective. The auditor recognizes a testable area and says, “I am doing an audit of this department and I know they have expense reports, so I will test the expense reports.”

Of course, those of us with years of experience and knowledge would never fall into that trap, right? Not so fast.

We live in a world where systems hold more information than anyone can possibly fathom. We are awash in data — big, large, super-sized, venti. And data analytics has become a buzzword that draws auditors like frau​dsters to inadequate controls. When auditors see that glorious richness of data, they fall back into that rookie mind-set: “I don’t know what I want or what I’m trying to prove or what I’m going to do with it, but I want everything you’ve got.”

At one time or another we’ve all caught it — data fever: The desire for more and more information without considering what that data is. We turn the fire hose on full force and what we intended to be a thirst-quenching sip of real information turns into a suffocating flood of meaningless facts, figures, and folderol.

More is not always better. The rules for gathering data are the same as for any audit test. First determine what you want to accomplish with the audit. Then articulate what you want to do with the data, coordinating that understanding with the already-identified risks.

It all begins by understanding what the data represents and what it might say. Before even thinking about asking for the data, auditors should talk with the data owners to understand what is available, how it is used, and how it relates to the processes under review. Then, and only then, should auditors begin to think about what data may be needed.

The promise of data analytics is to assist in performing audit work more efficiently. It also represents an opportunity for internal audit to provide real value by showing the organization how all that data can be helpful to everyone. But that cannot be accomplished by just gathering every scrap of data available. Just as you would stop a new auditor from barging forward with unfocused and potentially meaningless testing, stop yourself when asking for a data dump and determine what you are really trying to accomplish.

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