There have been plenty of articles and lectures given on continuous auditing in recent years. There is no question that technology is making continuous auditing a powerful tool for both internal auditors and managers, alike. However, despite the growing popularity of continuous auditing, I believe one of the true challenges in the next decade will be to continuously assess risks.
As I have observed before, management and the audit committee look to internal audit to ensure there are “no surprises.” While it can be argued that this is an unrealistic expectation in a dynamic environment (particularly in companies with vast complex business models), it is nonetheless an expectation that must be addressed. The key to avoiding surprises is to maintain a watchful eye on new or emerging risks. This requires a continuous focus on the part of management and internal auditors.
Yet, if we follow traditional practices, how likely are we to avoid surprises when we are routinely conducting internal audit engagements based on an audit plan that’s six months or a year old? Unless we also have a robust approach for continuous risk assessment, we are in danger of continuously auditing the wrong things. We need to not only assess risk continuously, but to also use this information to keep audit plans up to date at the speed of doing business.
One of the most common excuses I hear from internal auditors for not designing a continuous component to their risk assessment is that it is difficult and time consuming. Many of us have trouble finding the time for even one enterprise-wide risk assessment each year. But several simple techniques can be used to help keep the risk assessment updated throughout the year, and continuous risk assessment is just too vital to ignore.
When you consider making a move to continuous risk assessment, you may be thinking only in terms of the more formal methods of assessing risk — those in which you identify a set of key risk indicators annually and monitor the indicators often to determine whether you need to realign your indicators. Formal methods for continuous risk assessment can be highly effective, but they are not your only option.
Another method for keeping your risk assessment and audit plan up to date is what I like to call “risk assessment by walking around.” This method relies on developing strong working relationships with key members of senior management so that you know about new risks as soon as they do. Risk assessment by walking around might lack the discipline and structure of more formal assessments, but it can still be a powerful way to keep in touch with what’s happening in your organization, and it might reveal new risks that your formal key risk indicators do not address.
A third approach to continuously assessing risks is simply to keep your antenna set as high as possible to detect industry changes, economic trends, and other external factors. Industry publications, seminars, and professional association meetings can be invaluable sources for this type of risk assessment. Can these external sources of information really make a difference in your company’s risk profiles? You bet. Just think:
So what’s the best type of continuous risk assessment program for keeping up with the speed of doing business? Unfortunately, none of the above methods is truly complete in itself. Any of these methods can yield results that are far superior to those obtained merely by establishing an audit plan once each year and then following it regardless of changing circumstances. But given the speed at which risks are changing, I believe we need to use a combination of methods. Formal methods are best for staying on top of previously identified risks; risk assessment by walking around helps identify new internal risks; and keeping our antenna set on high for new external risks can help us start to address problems even before they are an issue at our organizations.
That’s my opinion – yours might be different. Is there a different type of risk assessment that had a big payoff for your organization? If so, we’d like to hear from you.