Running the Audit Function in Difficult Times

Under normal circumstances, the audit function would be performing its activities according to pre-defned strategy and programmes. The auditors would travel the world to conduct audits across the value chain. The audit management would be looking at ways to increase the value delivered to the business while designing and deploying transformation projects.

This would be business as usual in a normal audit organisation’s life but a “black swan” event happened at the end of 2019. It was a surprise with a major effect. It could have been expected but generally not included in enterprises’ risk mitigation programmes. It did tick all the boxes on how in his book of the same title (“The Black Swan”), Nassim Nicholas Taleb defned criteria that a black swan event includes.

A pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was frst reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Country Ofce in China on 31 December 2019. The WHO declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. As I write this article, millions of people were already infected globally, several hundred thousands died and a big proportion of the global population has been locked down for a long period of time. This crisis is like no other.

Neither companies were prepared for it nor were their audit organisations. COVID-19 is driving and accelerating a drastic transformation of the audit function. The coronavirus is impacting how audit programmes are being designed, modifed and implemented.

Sometimes the strategy and programmes are even being re-invented and audit professionals are looking beyond the audit routine to help their company and make a value-added contribution using their specifc set of competences, expertise and knowledge. The impact of COVID-19 on the audit function is huge but solutions to mitigate consequences, adapt and innovate exist. There is no doubt that the audit function will get through the crisis and will grow from it.

COVID-19 is impacting the audit function in multiple areas

The disease is attacking societies at their core. According to the United Nations, we are facing a global health crisis unlike any in its 75-year history — One that is killing people, spreading human suffering, and bringing down people’s lives. COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis. It is a human, economic and social crisis. The impact on enterprises is gigantic. The impact on the audit function is considerable too and COVID-19 affects it in three main areas: people, processes and the audit organisation itself.

The outbreak of coronavirus disease is stressful for people. Fear and anxiety are overwhelming and cause strong emotions and stress which can include fear and worry about people’s own health and the health of their loved ones, changes in sleep or eating patterns, difculty in concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems, aggravation of mental health conditions, and sometimes increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. On the business side, (additional) impacts on people can include feeling of unclarity in role, fear of loosing job, fear of work overload when crisis is over, and loss of motivation just to name a few. Audit professionals are not immune from all these impacts and feel the pain as their job is not “as usual” anymore.

The audit function’s processes are also being severely affected. Travel and access restrictions make on-site auditing quasi-impossible. Remote auditing is an option but very much technology dependent and not all companies were prepared or ready to go along this route. When they are organised and equipped for it, the availability of stakeholders or the technology on the receiving side might limit the audit possibilities. Current and expected future budget restrictions are affecting the audit plans. New risks are triggering the need to revise the audit risk-based approach. Redirecting auditors’ work is often necessary and on top of this everyone knows that on-site audits cannot take place which might trigger additional compliance risks.

COVID-19 has a major impact on the audit organisation itself. There might be an erosion of the short-term’s perceived value of the audit programme. Some might ask why an audit organisation is needed when no audits take place. After all, business goes on even when audits are not taking place isn’t it? There might be a fear for an audit organisation to loose its credibility and perceived value over time. This crisis is driving a transformation of the audit function.

Solutions for the audit function exist

On the people’s side, solutions to limit the impact is similar to the ones deployed in other business functions. A two-way communication at all levels of the organisation is key and encouraging communication amongst team members is crucial. There is nothing like over-communicating in these moments. Time is to look at development and rotation plans. An opportunity exists to deploy experienced auditors help revising the organisation’s risk map and assist the business defning its way forward.

“In a pandemic, cloud and collaboration technology will be the solution” said Dr. Patrick McConnell, Leading Technology Risk Advisor at BSC. The audit functions which were already well advanced on their digital transformation journey are benefting from their proactivity and are leveraging new technologies in remote auditing, use of big data and predictive approach to risk-based auditing. The use of self-assessments show their benefts and leveraging web-based information services to deliver timely alerts on emerging issues affecting the global food and beverage supply chain is gaining traction.

For the audit organisation, it is more than ever the moment for a constructive internal and external collaboration and to have the function contributing to business continuity. A lot needs to be done to catch-up in the response and recovery phases. Audit organisations should be looking outside the box and their routine to help the enterprise, using their unique set of competences, expertise and knowledge. As recognised experts, audit professionals are very well placed to provide new insights to top management regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their organisation’s risk and opportunity landscape and to improve strategy and measures taken or to be taken in future.

It is probably not an ideal time for audit organisations to stick to their audit programmes, plans or other routines if this does not provide value for their organization at this point. This is not audit business as usual. It is time to adapt and innovate. It might be more benefcial if auditors temporarily focus more on their advisory role and further take-up the assurance activities once the situation has been stabilised.

How will the new normal look like for the audit function?

This crisis will change our businesses and society in many and important ways including public health, environment, education, supply chain and how we work. The new normal will be anything but ordinary. The audit function will have learned from this major crisis and most probably will keep new ways of working on board in the future. Those will result in risk reduction, cost savings and the application of new technologies like never before. The new normal will be more digital as COVID-19 pushed organisations to accelerate the speed at which they were embracing continuous improvement, business protection and provision of value to the organisation. It is also time to prepare now for the next crisis as COVID-19 is not a one-off challenge. There will unfortunately be other crises, additional phases of this epidemic and additional epidemics. The audit function has a major role to play the way forward by delivering its value to the full.

– “The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim
Nicholas Taleb
– United Nations – COVID-19 Response –

By Marc Cwikowski
May 1, 2020

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