I have just had a great week away with some of my family. This was at Center Parcs, a forest-based family-oriented getaway at various locations in the UK. For those who have never gone, or for my international audience, these are holiday parks designed for those with children. There are child-friendly activities, swimming, crazy golf, children’s discos etc. What was interesting to me, not having children, was how the world is with children. It was a completely different perspective with values and things of importance in a completely different order to mine.
Another different perspective has been shown to me through some work that I have recently been supporting some audit colleagues from a professional services firm with. Their work and most notably, work style, has reminded me of the work and life values I held when I worked for a professional services firm.
These different perspectives got me thinking about how time, place and location affect us all in our audit views. As an auditor I am required by international auditing standards to remain objective and independent in my work. This, for me, means not only that personal views, conflicts and interests are avoided, or at the very least are transparent and managed, but also that I have an open mind. Now I think that I able to challenge my thought processes and think about different perspectives with not too much emotion or personal views getting in the way.
I think, however, it is more than this to be truly independent and objective. It is the need for what Erica Schoenberger differentiates as ‘strong’ objectivity. This is the ability not only to ask different questions and look at different evidence dispassionately, but also the ability to ask what questions am I not asking because they have never occurred to me. In other words, am I bound by my perspective? Now the two recent different perspectives in my professional and personal life have reminded me not only to think about the questions I could ask, but also the ones that I should ask and may not think of.
How do we do this? First I think of the obvious things that I could and do undertake. Whilst scoping a review I formally consider and document whether I think I am independent and objective, or would be perceived by a reasonable person to be. During my work I seek out contrary and different viewpoints on the matter at hand to evaluate different perspectives. At the end of my work I seek to have my work reviewed by a party independent of me. These are all safeguards.
Does this sharing of work amongst colleagues, both client and audit mean that we all get groupthink and a similar perspective though? Does this control and safeguard weaken over time? I normally go into most reviews with an open hypothesis to gather evidence against the question – Is this area suitably controlled to achieve stated or implied objectives? I do sometimes, however, form a hypothesis before-hand – this area is missing these fundamental controls, is this the case? or this area is poorly controlled, is this the case? Now these hypotheses do have some a priori assumptions. Does this make me less objective and independent? Am I using my cumulative client and business knowledge to assist in my work, but in a way that limits my objectivity on the matter? Do I consciously or unconsciously seek out evidence that supports my hypotheses and ignore evidence that contradicts it?
One thing for sure, it is difficult on any file review to challenge an evidential narrative woven into the file prepared by a colleague. If the killer and important questions to the counter narrative have not been asked nor documented, it is difficult to disprove a file’s narrative. This is when the audit opinion is at serious risk of getting the wrong answer.
So then how do you ensure that this is avoided? Well, a hypothesis is a good thing in my view. I provides the auditor with some structure and thought process to query and analyse the area at hand. Also I have always sought to prove my hypothesis and then try my best to disprove it. If you like, taking turns at being prosecutor and defender during the audit. I have also sought to check my file and work’s completeness by using (at the end not the beginning, as use at the beginning prevents fresh perspectives and thinking being developed in my view) some ‘guidance’. This can be expert publications or ISO standards, benchmarking frameworks or equivalent. It matters not. The point is it is someone outside of your perspective of either a current client, employer, or network of professional colleagues.
Perhaps we all need a dose of strong objectivity to truly shape our work and a change of perspective to enhance it? I have always found I learnt most from those I most strongly disagreed with.