Remember these tips to master a key skill of being an internal auditor, says Jane Allen.
At an ACCA UK Internal Audit Network event at ACCA’s head office on 2 February, Jane Allan of Jane Allan & Associates discussed how to get the information you need to carry out your role as internal auditor. A webcast of the event can be found on ACCA’s website, while below we share some of the highlights.
Questions It’s your job to ask questions. If you enjoy your job then you are happy with questions. Other people may not be. In fact most people don’t like being questioned. Thinking about the person you need to question and their likely mindset will make your job of getting an answer easier. We need to consider both how they react and how they receive or filter your question.
Why ask? You need to collect information in order to fulfil your role. Without the necessary information you cannot do your job. It’s worth remembering that often people assume you know what they know. Maybe you just need confirmation. That can seem pointless to someone to whom the situation is obvious. Perhaps you need help understanding what, when, and why; let alone how. But they have their secrets, their special tricks that make them important or essential and may not want to share them.
Information What do you really need to know? We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. Do you need to ask the same questions as last time? If yes, can you redesign them? Do you want outlines to be able to tick off your checklist? Are you looking for confirmation in the form of actual evidence? Do you need specific information or is this a general fact finding approach? Depending on what you want and who you are asking, you will need to design your questions carefully.
Confirmation If all you are seeking is confirmation that things are as you expect or as they should be, you can take two approaches: the blatant ‘any changes I should know about?’ or ‘is the system running as programmed?’ Just be very careful that when you phrase your question you do not tell them what you want to hear as an answer.
Understand If your need is to understand then you have a bigger challenge. Assumptions will be made as to what is ‘obvious’ which may well not be obvious to you. If your need for knowledge seems to threaten their unique selling points they may become reluctant to explain in sufficient depth. If it is glaringly obvious to them, they may treat you as an idiot for asking.
Responses The way we respond to questions reflects not just our knowledge but our mindsets too. Some people see any question as a form of attack on their credibility or as an assumption that they have done something wrong. This results in them becoming defensive. Others enjoy the opportunity to tell you all they know in great detail because it is so interesting to them and they assume you are equally fascinated. Perhaps the ones who just answer your question as briefly as possible are your favourites.
Defensive To anyone who instinctively finds questions intrusive, you are the enemy and putting them under threat or attack. As a result they attack back, clam up or simply lie to avoid the perceived threat. And all you wanted was an answer! You won’t get the information you need from these individuals unless you change your approach.
Unexpurgated The big danger of getting an answer from those who love to give you the unexpurgated version is that you switch off. Yes, they can be very boring and no, they don’t pause for breath. Of course they are going to tell you things you don’t need to know and often they will drift from the main question while peppering their answer with what they find fascinating. Sometimes though, buried deep in the ramble are essential facts you might not otherwise gain access to.
Concise So the concise question responder is the best? Well, yes, often they are. They are unlikely to give you evidence in the form of examples, unless specifically requested to do so, and they may quickly lose patience if they think you are going on too long. The real problem though is that you get what you ask for and nothing more, even when something more might clarify or change a given situation. If they are intelligent and see themselves as perceptive they may well first guess what you need to know and why you need to know it and temper their answers accordingly.
Dealing with defensive Arguing with someone who is naturally defensive only makes it worse. Denying that you are attacking them simply confirms their suspicions that you are doing just that. It takes time but you need to go prepared and turn the whole thing into a discussion. You need to show concern for their concerns and interest in their interests. ‘So what happens if….?’ can work once they feel you are on their side. Of course they may well lie and those lies could well be glaringly obvious. Nevertheless don’t challenge them, note them and ignore them. Remember behind the lie might lie an unknown truth.
Dealing with unexpurgated Many people are proud of their knowledge, fascinated by their department and what it does. They enjoy the opportunity to let others into their special world. They feel they are doing you a favour by explaining in detail. If you interrupt they will feel affronted or assume you need to hear it all again. So only interrupt with a thoughtful plan that will enable you to steer the conversation and not dominate it. Remember too these are the people who alert you to things you were totally unaware of and might never have learned without their help.
Dealing with concise If you know you are dealing with a concise soul, start by setting the scene. Let them understand the context of your questions so they can tune their answers accordingly. Make sure your question leaves the choice of answer open and does not indicate what you expect or want to hear. These individuals will not mind probing questions: expect and plan to ask them. Ask for specific examples too. Knowing what you need to know will enable them to help you with context.
Personal filters We all filter information as we receive it and thoughts as we have them. In all there are some 14 or so recognised filters – not all of them are relevant here. Four key ones are relevant and mixed with question attitudes will change how the person questioned responds:
away from: towards (eg I am going to lose weight versus I shall be slim)
centre stage: behind the scenes (me-centred versus self-effacing)
hands on: not me (accepting responsibility versus denying it)
emotion: logic (reacting and overreacting versus taking things calmly).
Away from: towards ‘Away from’ + ‘defensive’ often results in denial of responsibility, even before the question is posed. ‘Away from’ + ‘concise’ can simply be a blank look or a shrug of the shoulders. ‘Towards’ in these circumstances will inevitably be a pushing of responsibility or blame onto someone else.
Centre stage: behind the scenes Any ‘centre stage’ filter will result in answers built around the individual being questioned. If it is an ‘unexpurgated’ answer you will learn their life history; if it is ‘concise’ you will get bullet points but only those relevant to the speaker. ‘Behind the scenes’ responses are self-effacing, concentrating only on the tasks or systems.
Hands on: not me ‘Hands on’ simply puts the questioned into the key role, responsible for everything. The more senior the individual the less likely you are to learn the detail. ‘Not me’ is always an attempt to shift the blame. It may come in the form of no information at all or it may be specifically directed at pushing responsibility onto someone else.
Emotion: logic Where emotion is involved it usually turns personal – either the belief that you are attacking the individual or that life, systems and indeed your questions are attacking the entire team or department in the form of added stress. Logic is what you need but take care – if it is coupled with the concise then you may simply get the rule book re-invented.