The Year 2030 – “Nice to meet you, Mr. Robot.” How digitalization will disrupt the future of Auditing.

Note from the Editor: this article was originally written by the author at the start of 2020 as the basis for her speech (Tech Talk) delivered live on February 27, 2020 at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Conference in Seattle. It has shown itself visionary and so relevant given all that happened since with the pandemic.

I was recently reading a report from the World Economic Forum titled “Jobs of tomorrow – mapping opportunity in the new economy” and some other publications about the “Future of Work.” I came to the following conclusion: I do NOT believe that robots will replace food safety auditors in the coming years.

WHY? Because I am convinced that our job, as food safety auditors, requires soft skills, namely emotional intelligence, which robots do not have (at least for the moment!). Although this will be a continuously moving target, what AI can’t do well is use emotional intelligence, understand the situational context, make judgment calls, and generally see nuance and meaning as we, humans, do.

A computer or robot may help perform efficiently, but for now, you’re the only one who adds the expertise on how to act appropriately.

Nevertheless, by now, all of us have understood the importance of grasping how traditional audit services and the food system are being transformed by technology -the next 10 years will bring more changes that the past 20.

The food system is becoming increasingly digitalized. To be able to succeed in this digital era, as an individual or as a company, we need to respond to change with agility – not by resisting it. Organizations—and not just employees—will need to equip themselves with new capabilities.

Quoting Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

A visible change among the certification and assurance community will be employee skillsets. Food safety skills are primordial; however the capacity to recognize the logic inherent in numbers will be relevant. Data analysts, data scientists, and mathematicians may well start to integrate the team and explore the “hidden meaning” of data.

The right skills in the right place!

Now, what about the future of third party auditing?

The future of 3rd party audit lies in specialization, using technology to make the auditor’s role less intrusive and more cost-effective, and finding a better use to the enormous amount of data companies and audit firms collect.

The traditional approach of sending auditors to far-long or dangerous locations is already being transformed. We will see even a bigger rise in remote inspections in various forms: from drone inspections to video conference audits and inspections conducted through mixed reality devices. These technologies are already reducing the need for auditors to be physically present. They are also bringing a series of benefits such as: making inspections less wasteful, more environmentally friendly, more proactive, and in some cases less dangerous.

Wearable technology such as the so-called “smart” glasses may provide support for the major global players. Needs are multiple: for upstream visibility of their complex chain – an operator not trained in food safety can conduct a basic inspection wearing “smart” glasses at a remote site, while a trained auditor directs the process and communicates with the wearer through audio-video feed from an office in any part of the world.

Despite such advantages, we need to take care of. These approaches do not come without risks, and we (CB’s, accreditation bodies, and industry) need to work together to ensure that standards, objectivity, and reliability are not at stake.

Remote inspections are already happening today, but what about a decade from now?

Well, 10 years from now, the potential of technologies like AI, Blockchain, and IoT will drive real-time assurance.

Let’s take an example, to audit compliance today, we still audit a sample of paper records and look for historical lapses of compliance or some trends as much as “our” brain can process. But in a world where the Internet of Things enables continuous monitoring and alerts and Blockchain creates trusted digitally accessible records – will this paper approach continue to be the standard practice?

I don’t think so. We will move from examining historical non-compliances to monitoring in real-time data for anomalies and exceptions. At the same time, we will use predictive analysis and machine learning to digest historical and real-time data. Meaning that we will be able to predict future concerns and ultimately prevent many more lapses of compliance.

In the case of multi-site manufacturing facilities, a retail chain with multiple outlets or complex supply chains, predictive analysis can also target locations that present the most significant risk, and move the calendar-based inspection regimes into condition-based ones, with inherent savings.

Getting to this real-time age means fostering a collaborative framework from different parties: from food sector players to Certification/Inspection bodies, and technological partners. It is a massive undertaking to encode audit and inspection programs, work with the industry to implement technologies securely, and then make the necessary to ensure that the data can be trusted.

People and expertise will be crucial to success. Food specialists are essential to interpret, analyze, and design these new frameworks through their technical knowledge. We will still need to assess the companies’ competency providing the data, and continuously assess and recalibrate the criteria and sustainability of rules – like we do today with our auditors – as these are fundamental assurance requirements that won’t go away…

By Cristina Martins
October 1, 2020

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