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Mind of Jacka: What Would You Say…You Do Here?

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Mar 31, 2022

There is no job security for internal auditors if we refuse to look at the actual tasks we are completing.

So, what are you going to do when they get rid of your job?

"My job? Me? Get rid of me? I'm an internal auditor. They have to keep me. My gosh, it's even in the charter!!! (Quick, someone find the audit charter. What does it say?)"

Think about the most recent internal audit work you were doing before finding yourself in this particular word storm — the actual tasks you were completing. What physical action was involved? And how much of your brain were you using while doing that work?

Could a machine do that work? And if so, why does the organization need you?

Of course, it could be that you were interviewing someone, or writing up the notes on an interview, or attending a meeting, or leading a meeting, or writing up the notes on that meeting, or writing a report, or thinking about things, or wool-gathering, or updating your resume, all of which are darned important and the reason a computer can't do your job. But there is a more-than-excellent chance that what you were doing was entering data, pressing buttons, copying and pasting, filling out forms, or any of the myriad activities that are, for all intents and purposes, mindless — tasks that any computer could be doing for you. In fact, even if you were accomplishing some of the brain-required tasks listed above — interviewing, writing, meeting, etc. — pieces of that work could probably be done more efficiently and effectively by the computer.

And again, if a computer can do it, why does the organization need you?

Of course, an immediate answer is that internal auditors need to provide the human element. And that is a legitimate point. However, how much of the work you are doing actually requires that human element. Looking at the specific tasks that you complete, is there really a human element? Are you adding any value that the computer — bots, RPA, mindless automatons — couldn't? And couldn't the machine do the work faster, more accurately, and (hang on for the scary word) cheaper?

This is the reality we need to face — the reality that much of the work being done is not that difficult or demanding. Pulling data for SOX, reviewing documents for compliance, ticking and tying, reconciling, comparing signatures — mindless, repetitive, doldrum-esque tasks. And we are all getting paid way too much to be doing that kind of work.

Which means that, in spite of the charter, and in spite of low unemployment, and in spite of the value we think we provide, we are expendable.

The charter is a mere piece of paper. And the only thing it promises is that someone will do the work. It doesn't have to be you, it doesn't have to be your department, it doesn't have to be any particular person or group. The charter provides no guarantee.

And yes, unemployment is at historically low levels. Organizations are having trouble finding auditors and are forced to provide better incentives to coerce the current staff to stay. Seems like a good thing, right? Seems like job security. However, while this represents one response organizations make when human capital is at a premium, there is another way, one we saw play out during the Great Recession. Organizations will look for ways to get the same amount of work done with fewer people. And that means finding ways to do things more efficiently — to use the newly-available computer tools in a way that allows organizations to be much less worried about who is leaving. The bots can do it now. Here's the ironic part. As internal auditors, one of our jobs is to actually look for those opportunities. But somehow it skips our attention that this same razor can slice our operations. The economy provides no guarantee.

And value? What value are we providing if most of our time is spent pushing buttons, entering data, and copying forms? Our definitions of value are often tenuously based on processes and projects that could disappear under even the least intense examinations. Our proclamations of value and service provide no guarantee.

We continue to think in broad terms — the value of our audit work and how it supports the organization. All well and good. But there is a deeper, more challenging question that should be asked — one that gets to the heart of how we accomplish our work. What value is there in the way we do the actual work? And by evaluating those tasks we can begin to see that, for all our rhetoric and verbosity, we may be doing little more than acting as human bots accomplishing minor achievements.

I could be talking about bots. I could be talking about RPA. I could be talking about AI. I could be talking about ENIAC. I could be talking about adding machines. I could be talking about the abacus. I could be talking about the first caveman who figured out that he might be helpful in ensuring the rock accountant was really counting all the rocks. It all applies. Because what I am talking about is any technology, any change, any adjustment/aberration to the status quo.

Things will change. And if we don't adapt to those changes then we go the way of the dodo. And, yes, I know they recently sequenced the DNA of a dodo and feel that, within a number of years, they might actually be able to clone one. But do you want to wait that long for your job to be relevant again? And the changes that have come about over the last couple of years (changes that were forced on auditors and non-auditors alike) and the technological changes that will continue to impact the work being done (again, auditors and non-auditors alike)…well, we are face-to-face with the biggest opportunities and the biggest potential failures we've seen in a long time.

The challenge is for us to first recognize how much of our time is being wasted on mindlessness — things that could be done better through computers and bots. The next is find the actual tasks that can be replaced. Challenge number three is to go out and automate those steps. And the final challenge is to use that newly-free time to add actual value, not just press buttons, enter data, and copy forms.

And here's what might be a relatively unimportant note but, looking back, I realized this is the third time I've used a variation of this title, which if you don't know, comes from "Office Space." Part of the reason is that…well, I like the movie. But the other, and more germane, reason is that I think it reflects the fact that internal auditors don't always understand what they are doing. And there are numerous levels of this lack of understanding. In a variety of ways, we need to keep asking ourselves what we would say…we do here.

With all that being said, there is another aspect of this whole mechanization thing — something that impacts us and our clients. And in a way, it is almost the complete opposite of a lot I've said here. If you want a head start, read Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano." Otherwise, we'll see you next week.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.