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Effective Development Requires Knowing What You Want​

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It is pretty well proven that a reward-based approach to training is more successful than a punishment-based one. (The studies are out there. I'll let you find them yourselves. And, if you find something that disproves that contention, please let us all know.) This kind of makes sense. How much do you feel you would learn in a seminar or presentation or even a classroom if every move, utterance, or thought was criticized, all in the name of "making you better"?

With that in mind, why is so much of the feedback provided to internal auditors during audit work — in particular, the ubiquitous review notes — expressed in a negative way. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the review notes ridicule or demean. (Although I'm sure there is some of that out there.) But, even couched in the nicest of terms, review notes focus on what was done wrong and what needs to be corrected.

This makes logical sense because one of the significant purposes of the review note is to make the product better. Therefore, we have to point out what was done wrong, with the intent of having those things done correctly. You'll get no debate from me on that point. The review process is about ensuring the logic is correct, the conclusions are sound, and the final products are professional. It is about finding every nook and cranny where errors and mistakes reside, ferreting them out, and making everything pretty. The review notes that most of us develop speak to those needs.

But let's talk about the other, often forgotten, purpose of review notes: teaching and training auditors to do better work. (Give an auditor a review note and you help him complete a single audit; teach an auditor how to do better audit work and you help him complete good audits for a lifetime. That didn't come out as good in writing as it sounded in my head, but you get the idea.)

If part of the purpose of review notes is for training (and I would argue it may well be the most important purpose of the review note), then why is almost every review focused on the negative? "Where is this?" "Why did you do that?" "Don't put that in the test/workpapers/report!" "Make sure you go back and put that in the test/workpapers/report!"

It is not that these corrections do not need to be made. But, because the preponderance of review notes focus on what went wrong, any learning that might be occurring will be hampered. Remember, reward-based beats punishment-based.

The solution is relatively simple. Look at the review notes you develop and ensure that, as long as it is deserved, examples of good audit work — proper documentation, excellent testing, a well-worded report — are written up just as often as all the negative corrections.

So, if it is so simple, why don't we do it?

I think there are two reasons. The first is also the reason I believe we are so hesitant to say too much positive in our audit reports. The unspoken fear is that, just as soon as we say something good, all hell will break loose. And, whether it was something we should have seen or not, we think everyone will hold us responsible for missing something so obvious. (If it was so obvious, why didn't everyone else see it? But that is neither here nor there.)

But the second reason is the big one. We have no problem identifying and explaining when something is wrong because it is easy for us to spot when something is wrong. But do we know what something looks like when it is done correctly? And can we actually explain what something done correctly should look like? Can we look at work and say "Yes, this is exactly what I'm looking for, and this is why." (A co-worker of mine once said about our boss "he knows a good audit report — it's the one the executives tell him is good.")

My suggestion is that any auditor (whether you are the reviewer or not) start looking at the work product and begin making assessments — this is good, this is bad, this is incredibly great, this is incredibly awful — toward understanding what good audit work looks like. And, in the process, begin learning how to articulate to others what good audit work looks like. Not just "That is well-supported" or "That was a good test" or "That was an excellent audit report," but specifically why any one of those statements is true.

We think we know what good looks like. And just like my friend/co-worker said, we know it when someone else tells us. But we have to make a concerted effort to understand what we mean by good, be able to explain it to others, and be able to recognize it when it is occurring.

That's when we can confidently give credit where credit is due.

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