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​Future Imperfect

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A few years ago, I had the honor of being the closing speaker for an IIA conference. As with almost all IIA conferences, it was filled with interesting presentations and information of value to anyone willing to listen to what was being said. And therein lay the problem.

Quite simply, the participants appalled me with their inability to actually listen to what was being said — to seemingly dismiss the newer concepts and ideas they were being presented. These were ideas that represented the future directions of internal audit — forward-thinking ideas, concepts that could be immediately applied, things the participants needed to know. But their reactions and subsequent questions revealed the participants' unwillingness or inability to understand the gift they were being given.

You'll have to trust me on this. The presenters were good, their presentations were good, and the entire conference was good. But the crowd, doing their best imitation of Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel … well, not so much.

I got more than a little peeved.

I sometimes fiddle with my presentations right up to the minute of the actual presentation. (This has driven more than one person in charge of logistics into paroxysms of exasperation.) But this time I did more than fiddle; I made significant changes to the final slides. The presentation happened to be on leadership — a topic that leant itself to the new message I wanted to send. But it could have been "The Fundamentals of T-accounts" for all I cared because I was going to make a point. I took the portion of the presentation containing my thoughts on the future of internal audit and the charge that internal auditors must do more with what we have, and pumped up the anger quotient, effectively telling the participants to get their heads out of their workpapers, look around, and realize the world had changed, the requirements of internal audit had changed, and if they didn't change they would soon become the horse and buggy of the professional world. I was trying to metaphorically slap them upside the head.

I got good marks for that presentation. Unfortunately, I don't think it was because there was a great appreciation of the new message I was trying to send. If they had actually received that message, there would have been more than a few of the attendees less than satisfied. And the ratings should have reflected that displeasure. They didn't get my message. And I have to believe they walked away from that conference with continued, somnambulistic ignorance. Either I didn't use a big enough hammer or the one I used was trying to work through too much bone.

That experience sits in the back of my mind during every conference I attend. I look around during other conferences and I wonder, have we learned, are we trying for more, are people hearing the words and warnings that are out there? I like to think that my prior experience was an aberration, that I happened to come across a weird crowd at a weird time. I've never again run into quite the same situation.

So, good news, our future should be fine. But I can't rest easy.

Most conferences have informative and important presentations and receptive and appreciative audiences. But how much do these conferences — the attendees and the presenters — represent what is going on in the broader internal audit world? What we see in these situations are people who are participating — people who see the need for more information and new ideas. Unfortunately, there are a lot of auditors and audit groups who are not involved.

Are those other groups good? Are they mediocre? Are they bad?

I fear for what may be out there. Even when I talk with individuals attending conferences, seminars, presentations, etc., I hear stories that scare me. Stories from individuals who are working in audit shops that have not fully accepted what we can be and what we should be striving for. I talk to departments that see no problem reporting to the chief financial officer. I talk to departments that feel their job is to find what is wrong. I talk to departments that do not want to make waves. I talk to departments that constantly talk about changing things, and never do. I talk to departments that aren't ready or refuse to be ready to make the necessary moves into the future, often stuck in the past unable to even move into the present.

And these are the ones who are involved.

Many of us — presenters, authors, trainers, leaders, proselytizers — continue to sound the clarion call that internal audit must change. It cannot sit on its now musty laurels and expect success to come calling. We have to take control of our own futures to ensure we can continue to make a valuable difference.

But there are only so many times we can say we are on the precipice of change before we fall into the abyss. There are only so many times we can say we are at an inflection point before we miss the turn. And there are only so many times we can say we must grab the opportunities the future holds before the future grabs us, shakes us silly, and discards us back into the past.

I came this close to titling this piece "Requiem for a Profession." I truly fear we may be blindly walking into our final days. And, much like so many other issues we see in today's world, it may be too late to make the change.

However, maybe not.

Join me next time …

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