The following article is part of our blog article series "The Future of Auditing."
But why do we focus on that topic so much? The answer is simple: In recent years, we at zapliance with our team of auditors, scientists, and developers have observed that the surrounding conditions for us auditors are rapidly changing. An example is the ever-growing amount of available data that makes getting a holistic and valid view of the risk/opportunity perspective increasingly difficult without the support of partners within the organization. This development forces auditors to rethink their strengths/weaknesses profile. Why? Because working with partners requires personal skills - something auditors have previously not been dependent on to such an extent (by the way, you can find our head article, which describes the points just mentioned in more detail here). The goal of our blog article series on individual competencies is now to help auditors rethink their approach to be even more successful in the future. Just go and try it out!
My name is Alexander Rühle. I have been a passionate auditor since 2006 and for the last five years, I have also been CEO of zapliance. What I’ve heard from other auditors lately is that the expectations towards us auditors are changing. What I often fail to understand, however, is the way auditors react to these changing requirements. During one of our workshops, for example, the head of a specialist department told an anecdote about his first encounter with data analysis results during an audit from the previous year. In this project, the auditing department had carried out data analysis with conventional analysis software and sent the results to the specialist department by e-mail. In the e-mail with the attached Excel spreadsheet, the auditor wrote: "Please check and comment."
It's not what you say but how you say it
What left me (and the head of the specialist department) so stunned, however, was not only the fact that after opening the spreadsheet, it turned out that the auditor had not even pre-checked or evaluated the results. What weighed even more profoundly was the tone and content of the email: It created the impression of an officer talking to a subordinate. You can probably imagine the angry reaction of the head of the specialist department himself - as well as the way both sides treated each other from that moment onwards.
This example illustrates the great importance of the relationship between the auditor and the specialist departments: If the relationship, as in this example, is not characterized by appreciation and cooperation at eye level, problems can quickly arise and harm the company. A Gallup study, for example, has shown that only a few employees in Germany have a highly emotional bond with their company. Not surprisingly, one factor that impacts this relationship is the appreciation of their boss. The result: The economic damage of low employee retention amounts to up to 122 billion euros annually (see Gallup, 2019).
Which competencies do auditors need?
In this context, the DIIR issued a qualification model for internal auditing some years ago, which lists crucial competencies of auditors and those who want to become one (see DIIR, 2012). It mentions not only professional skills, industry-specific knowledge, and methodological competencies, but also personal skills - the area to which the anecdote about the e-mail between auditor and head of the specialist department refers.
If the auditor had been able to build up a relationship with the specialist department based on equality and appreciation through his personal skills, at least two things would have been different: On the one hand, the cooperation would have been more pleasant -at least for the head of the specialist department. According to the Gallup study mentioned above, this would have had a positive influence on employee loyalty. On the other hand, it can be assumed that an open and friendly atmosphere will lead to higher productivity of the relationship: Problems can be addressed openly and impartially - and therefore be solved quickly.
The key to becoming a successful auditor: These four competencies!
In the following, I would like to discuss the four core competencies that an auditor is characterized by. However, I will not stick to the competencies mentioned by the DIIR but instead, focus on the four competencies commonly found in the literature: methodological, social, personal, and professional competencies (see among others Mudra, 2004). The reason for that approach? These competencies put a much stronger focus on soft skills than the competencies mentioned by the DIIR. And I believe that compared to the industry- and department-specific knowledge, it’s going to be those soft skills that will be much more decisive in the future.
Methodological competence refers to the ability to choose the right approach to a problem. That includes not only the selection of the appropriate solution strategy but also the ability to put expert knowledge into practice. Methodological competencies also include the ability to quickly acquire new expertise with the help of modern working tools and to combine this expertise accordingly - a skill that is especially important in today’s dynamic working environment.
Insufficient methodological competence can lead to essential work steps being omitted.
Looking back at the anecdote about the e-mail correspondence between the auditor and the head of the department, I ask myself: Has the auditor proven to have strong methodological competence? I don’t think so. That is because the auditors' approach reveals two weaknesses with a high potential for improvement. On the one hand, he didn’t include his Professional Judgement in his work - an essential step in auditing. A pre-evaluation or the identification of potentials/risks would have been a piece of important information for the head of the department. That way he could have planned the proper next steps with the help of an objective assessment made outside the department.
On the other hand, the auditor avoids providing the head of the department with information about the context, such as the reason for the data analysis. That way, relevant information gets lost, which is necessary for successful cooperations or solution-oriented work.
Important in every situation in life: social competence
Social skills will also become more critical for the auditor in the future. But what are social skills? One automatically thinks of soft skills - but that's not entirely correct: Social skills describe the ability to act appropriately in any given situation when interacting with other people. Social skills affect the auditor, for example, in his work with the various partners in the specialist departments. They also include being able to put oneself in the shoes of others: It’s the only way to truly understand other people’s needs - an essential part of a functioning working relationship.
Other aspects of social competencies include the ability to act with empathy, to reflect on one's behavior, and to make compromises. After all, a well-developed social competence can not only solve internal conflicts, such as making a complex decision. People with a high level of social competence are also able to solve external disputes with other people much easier. That is not only important in private life, but also in the working environment, where different characters collide and must get along with each other.
If we look at the anecdote about the e-mail between auditor and specialist department in the context of social skills, one thing is striking: The auditor has neglected several essential points. It starts with the tone of the e-mail, which shows how little effort the auditor is making to put himself in the position of others. If he had at least tried to read his e-mail with the eyes of the head of the department, he would probably have noticed that the communication was anything but at eye level. It was a brusque instruction from above, completely ignoring the needs of the head of the department. There is a high probability that the head of the department was made to feel insignificant. What is also missing are Standard formulations such as a salutation and a farewell, which only stand out when they are not there. Those mistakes leave the lasting impression of a lack of appreciation - poison for good cooperation.
Now it's getting personal: personality competence.
The third bundle of competencies is called personality competence. Little surprising, those competencies are all about the personality of the person or the auditor. That includes one’s motivation, stamina, and creativity. Also crucial in the job context: Personal competence includes the attitude towards one's work.
Regarding the e-mail mentioned above, one can assume that the auditor isn’t a highly motivated one - at least that is what he communicates to the outside world. It seems he wants to get things done as fast as possible. In his work, he leaves out his professional judgment, crucial contextual information, and greetings. Even if the left-out greetings only seem to be a small detail, they still shape the overall impression the head of the department gets: The auditor seems to have little interest in his work. The dangerous thing about it is that low motivation is contagious - and can quickly cause significant damage to the company.
The fourth and last competence mentioned in the literature is professional competence. That includes technical knowledge and skills. Not surprisingly, both are necessary to do an excellent job as an auditor. And that is unlikely to change in the future. What will change, however, is the depth of expertise required from the auditor. That is because the recent flood of data means that areas in which auditing was previously impossible can be audited now. And this is where the circle closes: To cope with the growing amount of data, auditors will have to work even more closely with other experts in the future. For this cooperation to be successful, the four competencies described in this article are indispensable.
The future will show: Some competencies are more important than others.
I want to make one more prediction: social and personal skills are the skills that will become most important for auditors in the future. That does not mean that methodological and technical competencies are left out - but they are unlikely to change as much in the future as the other two competencies.
The "future of auditing" may sound abstract - but after writing this article, I once again have the feeling that auditors' reactions to future challenges can be very tangible. Because when I think of myself in terms of the four competencies described, I immediately think of one or two points where I still need to develop my skills. –What about you?
As always, please feel free to discuss this article in the comments section.
Articles from the series "The Future of Auditing" appear every two weeks on our blog. The title of the next article is "The importance of social competence for the auditor in the future."
German: DIIR (2012). Qualifikationsmodell für die Interne Revision. Frankfurt am Main.
Gallup (2019). State of the global workplace. New York: Gallup Press.
German: Mudra, P. (2004). Personalentwicklung: Integrative Gestaltung betrieblicher Lern- und Veränderungsprozesse. München: Verlag Vahlen.