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​A Fable of Observation and Analysis

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The following is adapted from something I saw posted on Facebook. Accordingly, I cannot vouch for its veracity. However, accurate or not, it is a fun story and, because there is a truth buried within, let's call it a fable.

The question was asked, "Do you ever start making things up in a paper and then look over it halfway through and think 'Wait a minute, I could be onto something here!'"

The first reply: "This is the definition of college."

The second reply: "As I was writing a paper on Asian saltwater crocodiles — something simple to satisfy a class requirement — I started noticing some inconsistencies in the scientific papers I was sourcing. I accidentally discovered that the crocodile's endangered species situation was misdiagnosed; it should have been classified as endangered. Now my professor is having me write a formal report to have the crocodile reclassified. All I wanted to do was write this paper on an animal I thought was cool and now I'm considered an expert on the species."

Two quick points. One, I hope you don't approach your audit reports this way. Two, don't ever expect anyone to consider you an expert over the area under review when you finish an audit. But between those two points is the interesting part.

We've all faced this question. "What makes you think you know more about this process/department/organization than I do? I've been working here [fill in the blank with a number of years that means the speaker is just shy of a Methuselian age.]"

Of course we don't know as much. But we have (to quote Liam Neeson) a very particular set of skills. To start with, we have a specialized understanding of risk, controls, and processes that should complement the business acumen of those within the department under review.

However, internal auditors also have other, more specific skills. Two that work closely together are observation and analysis. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked and underused. Many auditors get bogged down in prescribed audit programs, tests, worksheets, timesheets and other bric-a-brac that draws their attention away from the activities around them. Observation suffers. And the resulting analysis that should occur also suffers.

The best findings I've seen were not necessarily discovered by filling out the forms. Those issues were identified because the auditors looked up and saw what was occurring around them, using that information to analyze what was really occurring.

Internal audit is not just interviews and worksheets; it is recognizing that the work under review occurs outside the audit.

In our little fable, the funny part is that the guy was considered an expert when he wasn't really one. But the lesson is that he got to that lofty position by just looking around and analyzing the situation. It wasn't that he was smarter or more knowledgeable or in any real way better than others. It was that he was willing to look around and put the pieces together to understand the real picture.

And isn't that what internal audit is really about? Our job isn't to complete an audit program or fill out a form or even write a report. Our job is to gather information — look around, explore, and ask questions (which is different than interviewing) — and then analyze that information to get a picture of what is going on and how it might be made better.

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