Things evolve. Times change; new threats to business appear; but compliance must remain as a key business objective to ensure organisational goals are consistently achieved.
Ensuring compliance during times of enforced political, geographical or environmental restricted movement is a huge challenge for any organisation; no more brought into stark reality during the current Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
Conducting remote audits is becoming more popular among many industries. Some of our clients currently employ strategies that enable audit teams to receive and share data, conduct interviews, and submit observations without the need of commuting for several hours to the audit location or exposing the audit team to increased risk of harm from potential threats. In these challenging times, certification bodies must review their current paradigm and adapt to this ‘new’ world. Indeed, within the ISO 19011:2018, Guidelines for Auditing Management Systems, includes new guidance for conducting remote audits in order to carry out this transition to virtual auditing.
In this short discussion paper, I will attempt to outline the potential the benefits and challenges in conducting audits in a virtual manner
What is virtual auditing?
A virtual audit, sometimes known as a remote, desktop or e-audit, has the same objectives as a physical audit, but utilises electronic means to remotely obtain audit evidence and objectively evaluate it to ensure the extent of conformity to the required audit criteria.
Virtual auditing requires the same approach to conducting a physical audit. The auditor must plan, conduct opening and closing meetings and interviews, gather and review evidence and author the report; however, not physically being on site should not be considered a barrier. The auditor can utilise sharing of desktop screens to gather objective data the use of Skype, Zoom or other video conferencing systems which can used for interviews. The reviewing of documents and records virtually can be even more effective than doing so onsite due to potential auditee ‘procrastination’.
Benefits of virtual auditing
One of the biggest challenges for conducting on-site audits is ensuring the audit objective is met in full. This could be impacted by audit trails which may wander out of scope, where less experienced auditors may be led. Virtual audits still require the auditor to plan effectively but lend themselves to increased focus on specific areas of risk within the organisation. Using the mnemonic, sometimes ‘LESS’ is more.
|Location||Avoidance of traveling to remote or challenging locations, or at times where travel restrictions are in force.|
|Efficiency||Access to high-speed internet for video links, conveniently located printers etc. ensuring any e-data is functioning correctly (e.g. hyperlinks/access requirements etc.). Fewer hours to complete audits due to travel/transit/commuting times. Reduced logistical cost burden (e.g. hotels, flights etc.).|
|Safety||Exposure to dangerous locations or the need for required PPE in certain environments reduces the exposure of the audit team to harm.|
|Security||The requirements for access is reduced such as permits, visas or local security where required is reduced or eliminated entirely.|
Virtual audits do have their advantages over traditional auditing methods and techniques, although there are still some barriers to overcome.
Barriers to virtual audits
There are clear and tangible barriers against the use of virtual audits. Some accreditation and certification bodies have not clear guidance on how much of the audit can be conducted remotely in order to collect reliable audit evidence. By taking the ‘BAIT’ principle the pitfalls of virtual audits may outweigh the LESS is more approach.
|Bodies||Remote audits are not approved by some certification, accreditation or regulatory bodies.|
|Applicability||Some types of audits require physical ‘sampling’ of products or services. It is not easy or indeed possible to gather suitable evidence in some cases|
|Interaction||There may be a perception that the only means of gaining meaningful interaction with auditees is through face-to-face communications. The observation of Non-Verbal Communication (NVC) is challenging as the auditor may find it more difficult to detect possible confusing NVC during video meetings and interviews. The auditor not physically being on site may portray a lesser level of ‘importance’ being attached to the audit|
|Technology||Depending on the location of the auditee, network connections may not be reliable (e.g. meetings/interview links can drop out; download rates may be slow etc.).|
A ‘Novel’ approach in current times
Safety Assurance and the adoption of risk-based safety oversight techniques lend themselves well to differing auditing techniques; the areas that can present challenges, however, can be overcome. FP Management Systems believe that in light of current global challenges faced by organisations a refreshed approach to the purpose of auditing must be considered. We have experience in conducting virtual audits and find our techniques deliver value to our clients. A novel approach in current times may be a review of the ‘Art of Auditing’.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War