What You Miss When You Aren't There​​

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Time for me to put on my old man hat. These kids today….

Okay, I’m not actually going to be that bad. But the world has definitely changed. (How is that for a “No surprise, Sherlock” statement.) In particular, people learn and explore differently. And I’m not sure how successful that exploration is compared to the “good old days.” Let me explain.

For me, one of the great joys of life was/is visiting locations where I could lose myself in an abundance of stuff. What I mean by that is visiting locations such as libraries, museums, book stores, record stores (and, so help me, if you make me explain what a “record” is to you, I may have to come down from my pulpit and smite thee), even “micro-locations” such as dictionaries and encyclopedias - anyplace where the item or information you are looking for is buried amongst related and unrelated items and information.

The fun is in the serendipitous discoveries that happen when you start out looking for something specific, but wind up finding something else – something new and different.

For example, you may be looking for a book by Ray Bradbury. You visit the bookstore where the Bradbury books are nestled deep in the stacks of volumes, publications, and tomes that are the store’s raison d’etre. You begin to wind your way through rows and rows of books that almost assuredly have no connection with Bradbury, his theses, or even his genre. But, in rather short order, you find you have spent a huge portion of time exploring these rows and rows of books, and, in spite of having found a number of books you now plan on purchasing, none of them are that new copy of Fahrenheit 451 you were looking for.

And this doesn’t even include the times you wander to such locations with no purpose, just visiting to see what you might stumble upon.

That isn’t the way it happens on Amazon (at least in my experience). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crusty enough to avoid shopping there. I do a lot of reading, and that means a lot of buying, and Amazon is a fantastic resource. (See, I’m not quite at the stage where I find myself screaming “Get off my lawn!”) But I go in, I buy what I want/need, and I get out.

There are no aisles to get lost in; there is no surprise discoveries of new and unrelated things; there is no walking out with ten items when you only planned on buying one. Sure, Amazon may provide recommendations. But let me assure you that those recommendations are completely off-base or so on-point that they provide nothing new.

Now, I’m not dinosaur enough to think exploration and inquisitiveness is completely dead. I realize that much the same randomness of discovery I have been talking about is similarly accomplished when we follow interesting links, dig into barely-related YouTube clips, or spend an afternoon clicking picture after picture of adorable kitties on Pinterest. And that kind of exploration – no matter how trivial, even if it is cat pictures – is a good thing. As I said, this is how inquisitiveness is developed and bred.

But a story similar to the book-buying experience – bookstore versus Amazon – can be told about any situation where interacting with physical objects has been replaced with pixels and bits. And, in my mind, those on-line, non-societal interactions stifle the practice of inquisitiveness.

This has an interesting impact on the profession of internal audit. Inquisitiveness is foundational to the success of any internal auditor. So, a negative impact on inquisitiveness has a negative impact on the profession.

The point of all this discussion relates to how audit work is conducted. Because, just as virtual experiences have changed how people explore and discover new things, virtual audit work changes how internal auditors explore and discover what is actually occurring.

More and more, I see virtual audit work being conducted. Phone interviews, documentation from electronic sources, googling relevant background information, teleconference meetings…. They all make perfect sense. Yet, any time audit work is conducted in this manner, the overall effectiveness of internal audit may suffer.

Let’s skip the whole “put a human face on the auditors” or “people’s reactions are as important as their words” aspect of these interactions (both huge considerations and well worth their own blog posts). Instead, let’s talk about how virtual audits can impact the auditors’ ability to be inquisitive about what is going on.

A few years ago, an auditor was conducting an audit of a major operation within our organization. Because of budget constraints, much of the prior audit work had been done remotely. Luckily, this auditor was in the same location as the business unit being reviewed. (One of the significant benefits of a decentralized audit shop.) Midway through the audit she came to me with some interesting observations. A few were tangentially, at best, related to the audit. But one of the most significant issues would probably not be considered part of the audit scope. She discovered that cash collections at the end of the week were kept in a desk drawer to be deposited the following Monday.

It was a sizable amount of money, and it was a practice that had been going on for some time. (Similarly, the other issues she noted also had a long history of existence.) Our prior audits had not identified them because it was not a question asked within the scope of the audits, and no one had previously visited the site.

No one had inquisitively explored.

But, because of this one auditor’s inquisitiveness and her ability to wander the aisles, we had discovered a significant issue.

Now, let me quickly note that budget considerations are important. I understand the need to keep within budgets, and I similarly understand why organizations (including mine) use virtual audits. By reducing the costs, we can provide more coverage.

So, I’m not saying wipe out virtual audits or the associated tools in all instances. As with any tool, they should be used when it is the right thing to do. But, when making that choice, be sure you recognize the cost and the missed opportunities when it is decided that site visits are not necessary.

And be willing to let auditors wander the aisles, shelves, and halls to learn just a little bit more than you may have suspected.

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