As auditors, asking questions is our bread and butter. Practitioners are expected to be curious, inquisitive, and even challenging when conducting engagements. But sometimes, despite asking what feels like a million questions, our audits don’t progress as we expect or hope. Reflecting on a recent failed attempt to find out what my four-year-old did at day care (“What did you do at day care today darling?” “Nothing, Mummy”), I realized this lack of progression can occur when we aren’t asking the right people the right questions — we need a different kind of audit conversation.
Problems can arise initially when conversations take place solely with internal audit’s designated client contact — typically the manager in charge of the area being audited. At a previous organization, I led a cash-related audit after my primary contact confirmed the process was critical enough to merit internal audit’s attention. But this individual oversaw the process under review — so of course it was considered important. A subsequent meeting with senior management revealed the cash process was a lower audit priority than my team and I originally thought. We could have obtained this information much sooner by holding additional conversations with someone who possessed a more objective point of view.
Even so, identifying the best individuals to speak with does not always guarantee the most relevant information will surface — the discussion itself also requires close attention. Auditors typically prepare questions in advance of client discussions, to make the best use of everyone’s time. While the process constitutes best practice, it also presents risks. The auditors may think the meeting is running efficiently as they work through each question, but they could miss the opportunity to explore risks through a more conversational, back-and-forth exchange. If the client simply answers questions with yes or no responses (or “nothing,” like my four-year-old), the information gathered may be unhelpful or misleading.
Auditors should occasionally give themselves permission to let the conversation roam and flow. When this happens, some of the topics clients want to discuss inevitably won’t conform to the auditors’ agenda. Letting the discussion take its course, however, might lead to new insight on what clients view as key risks or opportunities.
In chatting with my four-year-old, I’ve reconsidered the value of a stock question — asking what train he played with, for example, got a much more detailed response than the standard, “What did you do at day care?” Likewise, a stock question used in audit planning such as, “What keeps you awake at night?” sometimes leads to a useful answer, but often it yields nothing new. Auditors should experiment with different questions, using the audit team’s collective wisdom to come up with a variety of possibilities. The right approach to client conversations can significantly enhance internal audit’s value, turning a lost art into a productive tool for gathering information.