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Posts Tagged ‘SOX’

Is your SOX program both effective and efficient?

July 21, 2019 10 comments

Protiviti’s surveys and reports are always worth reading. One I look forward to is their annual survey on SOX compliance.

Those of you who are responsible for the SOX program or SOX testing at their organization are likely to find the benchmarking info in the 2019 survey, Benchmarking SOX Costs, Hours and Controls of interest.

However, I want to share (again) a note of caution.

Protiviti and others are talking about the use of analytics and other tools, such as RPA, for SOX testing.

But, the purpose of the SOX testing is to:

  • Confirm that the design of the controls relied upon to prevent or detect a material error or omission in the financial statements filed with the SEC are sufficient, if they are operated as designed, to address such a possibility. The likelihood of a material error or omission is less than reasonably possible.
  • Confirm, with a reasonable level of assurance, that those controls are being performed consistently as designed.

The end product is an assessment as to whether the system of internal control over financial reporting is effective; that means that the controls are sufficient to provide reasonable assurance that a material error or omission would be prevented or detected.

What do these newer technology tools do for us?

For the most part, they provide some level of assurance that the data, and possibly the transactions, are free from error.

But do they provide any assurance that the system of internal control is effective?

While the presence of errors is a strong indicator that the controls are not sufficient, the absence of errors is not a strong indicator that the controls are effective!

The data may be free from error even though the controls are not being performed at all!

In my SOX training classes (the next one is in October), I ask the attendees how many of them have had their homes burglarized in the last year. Only on the rare occasion has anybody raised their hand.

I then ask whether the fact that they have not been burglarized is proof that they locked all the doors and windows before they left the house.

I remember one time in England when, as an IT auditor, I was flowcharting and identifying controls in a very complex integrated system. One of the controls that management had identified was a comparison between data at one point in the system to the data at a much later point (a “run to run” control). When I examined the logic of the program that did the comparison, I found that it was coded incorrectly. At each point, early (file E) and late (file L), a file was created that could be compared. But the comparison program was comparing data in file E to data on file E – instead of file L.

The control was doing nothing. But the data happened to be clean anyway (we checked).

So, when it comes to the use of technology tools, will they provide the evidence you need that the controls relied on are both adequately designed and operated? Do they test the controls or only the data?

My second note of caution is to remain focused on whether the system of internal control over financial reporting provides reasonable assurance that material errors will either be prevented or detected. That refers to the possibility of errors in the consolidated financial statements filed with the SEC.

Too many, typically under pressure from the external auditors, are adding controls without asking whether they are needed to prevent or detect a material error.

                WHERE’S THE RISK?

The scope does not, and typically should not, include controls that would never result in material weaknesses should they fail. It’s not a matter of whether they are important controls, or required to address the risk-du-jour. It’s a matter of whether they are being relied upon to prevent or detect a material error in the filed financials.

One final point: I don’t care how many ‘entity-level’ controls you have. I only care whether you have selected the right controls to include in scope.  By ‘right’ I mean the combination of controls that can be relied on to function consistently and address the risk of a material error, and are efficient to operate and test.

I welcome your thoughts.

Cyber and reputation risk are dominoes

February 18, 2017 12 comments

Anthony Fitzsimmons recently sent me a review copy of his new book, Rethinking Reputation Risk. He says that it “Provides a new perspective on the true nature of reputational risk and damage to organizations and traces its root causes in individual and collective human behavior”.

I am not sure that there is much that is new in the book, but if you want to understand how human behavior can be the root cause (in fact, it is very often the root cause) of problems for any organization, you may find it of interest.

The authors (Fitsimmons and Professor Derek Atkins) describe several case studies where human failures led to serious issues.

Humans as a root cause is also a topic I cover in World-Class Risk Management.

As I was reading the book, I realized that I have a problem with organizations placing separate attention to reputation risk and its management. It’s simply an element, which should not be overlooked, in how any organization manages risk – or, I should say, how it considers what might happen in its decision-making activities.

The same thing applies to cyber risk and even compliance risk.

They are all dominoes.

dominoes

A case study:

  • There is a possibility that the manager in HR that recruits IT specialists leaves.
  • The position is open for three months before an individual is hired.
  • An open position for an IT specialist who is responsible for patching a number of systems is not filled for three months.
  • A system vulnerability remains open because there is nobody to apply a vendor’s patch.
  • A hacker obtains entry. CYBER RISK
  • The hacker steals personal information on thousands of customers.
  • The information is posted on the Internet.
  • Customers are alarmed. REPUTATION RISK
  • Sales drop.
  • The company fails to meet analyst expectations for earnings.
  • The price for the company’s shares drop 20%.
  • The CEO decides to slash budgets and headcounts by 10% across the board.
  • Individuals in Quality are laid off.
  • Materials are not thoroughly inspected.
  • Defective materials are used in production.
  • Scrap rates rise, but not all defective products are detected and some are shipped to customers.
  • Customers complain, return products and demand compensation. REPUTATION RISK
  • Sales drop, earnings targets are missed again, and …….
  • At the same time as the Quality staff is downsized, the capital expenditure budget is cut.
  • The Information Security Officer’s request for analytics to detect hackers who breach the company’s defenses is turned down.
  • Multiple breaches are not detected. CYBER RISK
  • Hackers steal the company’s trade secrets.
  • Competitors acquire the trade secrets and are able to erode any edge the company may have.
  • The company’s REPUTATION for a technology edge disappears. REPUTATION RISK
  • Sales drop. Earnings targets are not achieved, and……..

It is true that every domino and the source of risk to its stability (what might happen) needs to be addressed.

But, focusing on one or two dominoes in the chain is unlikely to prevent serious issues.

One decision at a low level in the company can have a domino effect.

Consider this slide deck by ERM Strategies, Inc. about the Deep Water Horizon disaster.

I welcome your comments.

A new front opens in the SOX battle

November 20, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the issues that I address in my SOX Master Classes (the next one is in February) has come of age.

I am talking about the certification signed by the CEO and CFO and included in the quarterly filing with the SEC – the one required by Section 302 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

The issue is this:

  • The CEO and CFO are required by law to assess the state of internal control over financial reporting (and disclosure control) every quarter and report whether or not it is effective as of the date of the quarterly filing.
  • For their own as well as the company’s protection, they need to have a reasonable basis for that assessment.
  • Tests of internal control over financial reporting are typically spread over the year. Some perform tests in every quarter; some during at least a couple of quarters; and few limit their testing to the fourth quarter.
  • Deficiencies in the controls are identified during that testing.
  • Those deficiencies may be assessed as potential material weaknesses if not corrected and retested prior to the end of the year.
  • As a result, potential material weakness frequently not only exist but are known to exist at the time that the CEO and CFO are required to assess and certify internal control over financial reporting.
  • But, for whatever reason, these potential material weaknesses either are not reported to the CEO and CFO (which fails one of the Section 302 requirements: they have to certify that they know about control issues) or are ignored.
  • The CEO and CFO may certify that the systems of internal control and disclosure controls are adequate when they are not.

This is what I have to say in Management’s Guide to Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404: Maximize Value Within Your Organization:

In the past, most CEOs and chief financial officers (CFOs) have signed their annual and quarterly certifications—which are included in the financial statements filed with the SEC on Form 10-Q and required by Section 302 of Sarbanes-Oxley—without a rigorous examination of internal controls. Ideally, management has integrated the quarterly and annual assessment processes. Although management is not required to test all its key controls every quarter, it should perform some degree of testing each quarter to support the quarterly Section 302 certification. At a minimum, the Section 302 certification process should include a consideration of the status of the Sarbanes-Oxley project, the results of testing, the severity of any identified control deficiencies, and management’s corrective action plans.

When I was writing the book, I talked to the SEC about this issue. They said that they understood it but it was not a priority at that time.

Well “the times, they are a-changing”.

This recently appeared on the CFO magazine web site in an article on SEC Focuses on Internal Control by a former chief accountant of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. In the middle of the article is this section:

Specific issues that investigators have been addressing include whether a material weakness: (1) existed in a reporting period before a restatement; (2) was adequately described as to scope; (3) existed, even if there was no material error; and (4) existed in connection with controls and procedures for disclosure, or in connection with 302 certification processes.

In the book and in the class, I recommend that management and the SOX PMO consider how the results of testing during earlier quarters are incorporated into the Section 302 certification process.

For example, is the SOX PMO (or equivalent) included in the disclosure review process?

When potential material weaknesses are discovered during SOX or internal audit testing, my suggestion is to review the issue with the legal function. They can advise the CEO and CFO whether this should be disclosed as part of the Section 302 certification.

This new front is clearly starting to open.

Don’t let it pull you under.

I welcome your comments.

Lessons Learned from the Transition to COSO 2013

May 3, 2015 5 comments

Protiviti has shared with us a useful Top 10 Lessons Learned from Implementing COSO 2013.

I especially like this section:

It is presumed that everyone understands that a top-down, risk-based approach remains applicable to Section 404 compliance, and the transition to the 2013 updated Framework does not affect this. While we don’t list this as a lesson, we could have, because some companies either forgot or neglected to apply this approach when setting the scope and objectives for using the Framework. As a result, they went overboard with their controls documentation and testing. We can’t stress enough that the COSO 2013 Framework did not change the essence of, and the need for, a top-down, risk-based approach in complying with SOX Section 404.

The report has a number of excellent pieces of advice. However, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have points of disagreement.

The first is on mapping. It is NOT necessary to map all your controls to the principles. If we take principle 10, for example, it states “The organization selects and develops control activities that contribute to the mitigation of risks to the achievement of objectives to acceptable levels”. Rather than map all your control activities to this principle (or to principle 11, which is the same – just for IT general controls), the organization needs to identify the control(s) it relies on for its assessment that the principles are present and functioning[1]. For principles 10 and 11, that will be the SOX scoping exercise. For the principle on fraud, the control that should be identified is the fraud risk assessment, not every control relied on to detect or prevent fraud.

Then there is the assertion that indirect controls are the same as entity-level controls. COSO (both 1992 and 2013) tell us, correctly, that activities in each of its components may operate at any level within the organization. For example, let’s say that an account analysis is prepared by Corporate Finance as part of the period-end close. This entity-level control may operate with sufficient precision to be relied upon to detect a material error or omission in that account. But the entity-level control is a direct control, not an indirect control. (A direct control can be relied upon to prevent or detect an error. An indirect control is one that serves to increase or decrease the likelihood that other, direct, controls will function effectively. Hiring, integrity, oversight by the board – these are indirect controls where a defect would increase the likelihood that affected direct controls would fail.)

Another example that helps us understand the difference is the hiring process (related to principle 4, in the Control Environment). The hiring process most often is at a lower level than the entity-level, often as deep as the activity level as that is where most hiring managers reside. Controls in the hiring process in this situation are activity level (or what I call ‘intermediate level’ controls, operating at a location or business unit rather than either the top or the bottom of the organization) and are indirect controls.

I could quibble with one or two more points, but I don’t want to detract from the report. I want, instead, to encourage you to read and discuss it.

What do you think?

What additional lessons have you learned?

[1] Full credit for this wording goes to the E&Y national office, who used it in a conversation I had with them about the firm’s training of its audit staff.

The most important sentence in COSO

April 25, 2015 13 comments

In my opinion, one sentence stands out, whether you are looking at the COSO Internal Control – Integrated Framework (2013 version) or the COSO Enterprise Risk Management – Integrated Framework.

That sentence is:

An effective system of internal control reduces, to an acceptable level, the risk of not achieving an objective relating to one, two, or all three categories.

The sentence is important because it emphasizes the fact that the purpose of controls is to address risk, and that you have ‘enough’ control when risk is at desired levels.

To me, this means that:

  1. Before you assess the effectiveness of internal control, you need to know your objective(s), because we are talking about risk to objectives – not risk out of context
  2. You need to know the risk to those objectives
  3. You need to know what is an acceptable level of risk for each objective, and
  4. You need to be able to assess whether the controls provide reasonable assurance that risk is at acceptable levels

You may ask “where is that sentence?”, because when consultants (and even COSO and IIA) make presentations on COSO 2013 and effective internal control, all you hear about are the principles and components.

In fact, anybody who reads COSO 2013 should have no difficulty finding this most important sentence. It’s in the section headed “Requirements for Effective Internal Control”.

This is how that section starts:

An effective system of internal control provides reasonable assurance regarding achievement of an entity’s objectives. Because internal control is relevant both to the entity and its subunits, an effective system of internal control may relate to a specific part of the organizational structure. An effective system of internal control reduces, to an acceptable level, the risk of not achieving an objective relating to one, two, or all three categories. It requires that:

  • Each of the five components of internal control and relevant principles are present and functioning
  • The five components are operating together in an integrated manner

There is no mention of satisfying the requirement that the “components and relevant principles are present and functioning” until after the reference to risk being at acceptable levels.

In fact, I believe – and I know of at least one prominent COSO leader agrees – that assessing the presence and functioning of the components and principles is secondary, provided to help with the assessment.

Let’s have a look at the very next paragraph in the section:

When a major deficiency exists with respect to the presence and functioning of a component or relevant principle or in terms of the components operating together, the organization cannot conclude that it has met the requirements for an effective system of internal control.

When you look at this with the (COSO) risk lens, this translates to the ability to assess internal control as effective, and the principles and components as present and functioning, as long as there is no deficiency in internal control that is rated as “major”.

How does COSO determine whether a deficiency is “major”? That can be found in the section, “Deficiencies in Internal Control”.

An internal control deficiency or combination of deficiencies that is severe enough to adversely affect the likelihood that the entity can achieve its objectives is referred to as a “major deficiency”.

Let’s translate this as well:

  1. If the likelihood of achieving objective(s) is “severe”, then the risk is outside acceptable levels.
  2. If the risk is outside acceptable levels, not only should the related component(s) or principle(s) not be assessed as present and functioning, but internal control is not considered effective.
  3. When it comes to SOX compliance, a “major deficiency” translates to a “material weakness”. The objective for SOX is to file financial statements with the SEC that are free of material error or omission. The acceptable level of risk is where the likelihood of a material error or omission is less than reasonably possible.
  4. That means that if the deficiency is less than “major” (or “material” for SOX purposes), then the related component(s) or principle(s) can be assessed as present and functioning – and internal control can be assessed as effective.

So, the only way to assess whether the principles and components are present and functioning is to determine whether the risk to objectives (after considering any related control deficiency) is at acceptable levels.

Do you see what I mean?

Risk is at the core. Assessing the presence and functioning of components or principles without first understanding what is an acceptable level of risk to objectives is misunderstanding COSO!

Why are so many blind to this most important sentence?

I have a theory: the presentations were all prepared based on the Exposure Draft. That document failed to reference the requirement that internal control be designed to bring risk within acceptable levels. (The defect was fixed after comments were received on the issue.)

Do you have a better theory?

Can you explain the blindness of so many to the most important sentence in the entire Framework?

Why Internal Audit Fails at Many Organizations

December 6, 2014 29 comments

When recent studies by KPMG and PwC indicate that about half of internal audit’s key stakeholders (board members and top executives) do not believe that internal audit is neither delivering the value it should nor addressing the risks that matter, we have to recognize that internal auditing is failing at many organizations.

With that in mind, a recent PwC publication in its Audit Committee Excellence series, Achieving Excellence: Overseeing internal audit, merits our attention.

My opinion is that while the audit committee members may be assessing internal audit performance as ‘needs improvement’, they should be looking in the mirror. Internal audit reports to them; if it is not performing to their satisfaction, they are either failing to communicate expectations clearly, not demanding the necessary improvements, not providing the critical support they need when management is pulling them in a different direction, not taking actions (such as replacing the CAE) to effect change, or all of the above.

Audit committee members need guidance and while the IIA does provide some excellent insights from time to time, the audit firms’ publications are often one of the first that are read.

The PwC publication makes some very good points but unfortunately demonstrates a limited understanding of internal audit best practices. This could be because it was written by their governance team rather than by their internal audit services leaders. (PwC’s internal audit services arm has produced not only good guidance from time to time (including their State of the Internal Audit Profession series), but some excellent thoughts leaders (including the IIA CEO, Richard Chambers).)

Let’s look at what they did well:

“A priority for the audit committee should be empowering the internal audit organization by providing visible support.”

This is an excellent point and PwC describes it well. The audit committee should actively engage internal audit and by showing its respect for the CAE and his team promote respect by management.

“Sometimes internal audit crafts an annual plan that leverages its group’s capabilities rather than addressing the company’s key risks. Audit committees will want to be on the lookout for this.”

Another fine point. The audit committee should take responsibility for ensuring that internal audit addresses the risks that matter to the organization.

“Understand whether resource constraints (e.g., restrictions on travel budgets or the ability to source technical skills) have an impact on the scope of what internal audit plans to do. If the impact of any restrictions concerns the audit committee, take steps to help internal audit get the resources it needs.”

The audit committee should ensure that internal audit has an appropriate level of resources, sufficient to provide quality insight and foresight on the risks that matter now and will matter in the near future.

“Audit committees should determine if they are accepting a sub-excellent level of performance and competence in a CAE (and internal audit function) that it wouldn’t be willing to accept for a CFO (or other key role).”

If the CAE is not considered as critical to the success of the audit committee, something is wrong and the audit committee should take action – even if, perhaps especially if, management holds the CAE in high regard while he delivers little of value to the audit committee.

Periodically discuss whether the amount and type of information internal audit reports to the committee is appropriate.

While this is an essential activity, PwC doesn’t get the issue right. The audit committee should ensure it receives the information it needs to perform its responsibilities for governance and oversight of management. That is not a simple matter, as PwC implies, of being succinct in how the CAE presents audit findings.

What did they miss?

  1. The audit committee should ensure that all the risks that matter now and will matter in the near future are getting the appropriate level of attention from internal audit.
  2. The audit committee should challenge any audit activity that is not designed to address a risk that matters.
  3. The audit committee should take a very strong stance that internal audit reports to them and serves their needs first, not those of management. The PwC paper identifies two reporting lines but is wish-washy on the subject, only saying that “Directors and management should reach consensus on which areas should be internal audit priorities.”
  4. The audit committee should challenge internal audit on how they work with the risk management activity. Where it exists, are they assessing its effectiveness? Are they working effectively with risk management? Do they leverage management’s assessment of risk appropriately?
  5. The audit committee should be concerned about the CAE’s objectivity and independence from undue management influence. Does he have one eye on internal audit and the other eye on his next position within the company?
  6. The audit committee should also ensure that it has an appropriate role in the hiring, performance assessment, compensation, and (where necessary) firing of the CAE.
  7. Finally, but in many ways most importantly, the audit committee should require that the CAE provide them with a formal assessment of the company’s management of risks and the effectiveness of related internal controls.

The publication makes some technical mistakes because the authors are not internal audit practitioners. Can you spot them?

That’s my challenge to you – in addition to welcoming your comments.

The effective audit committee

November 22, 2014 7 comments

A short article in CGMA Magazine, Ingredients of an effective audit committee, caught my eye. I recommend reading it.

I think there are some key ingredients to an effective audit committee that are often overlooked. They include:

  1. The members have to read all the material for the audit committee meeting before the meeting. It’s amazing how often they don’t, which reduces the meeting to absorbing the material rather than a constructive discussion of its implications.
  2. The members have to be ready, willing, and able to constructively challenge all the other participants, including the external and internal auditors as well as financial, operating, and executive management. Too often, they are deferent to the external auditor (for reasons that escape me) and too anxious to be collegial to challenge senior management.
  3. They need a sufficient understanding of the business, its external context (including competitors and the regulatory environment), its strategies and objectives, risks to the achievement of its objectives, and the fundamentals of risk management and financial reporting, to ask the right questions. They don’t need to have a deep understanding if they are willing to use their common sense.
  4. They need to be willing to ask a silly question.
  5. They need to persevere until they get a common sense response.
  6. No board or committee of the board can be effective if they don’t receive the information they need when they need it. I am frustrated when I read surveys that say they don’t receive the information they need – they should be demanding it and accepting no excuses when management is slow to respond.
  7. Audit committee members will not be effective if they are only present and functioning at quarterly meetings. They need to be monitoring and asking questions far more often, as they see or suspect changes that might affect the organization and their oversight responsibilities.

What do you think?

I welcome your comments.

A Rant about the GRC Pundit’s Rant

April 18, 2014 24 comments

Michael Rasmussen, a.k.a. the GRC Pundit, is a friend whose intellect, integrity, and insights I respect. He and I, together with another friend, Brian Barnier, were the first three to be honored as OCEG Fellows for our thought leadership around GRC.

Michael and I have had many a debate on the topic of GRC. Michael brings the perspective of an analyst that works with many companies, helping them select and implement software solutions. That is his business: he refers to himself (GRC 20/20 Research, LLC) as a “buyer advocate; solution strategist; and market evangelist”. His latest blog, GRC Analyst Rant: Throwing Down the GRC Analyst Gauntlet, inspired me to write this one.

My background is very different, having been a practitioner and executive responsible for many of the business activities he supports – in other words, I might have been one of his customers. My focus is on helping business run better – and that frequently but not always involves the judicious use of technology.

Michael and I agree on a number of points, disagree on others. For example, I believe he and I agree that:

  • The term ‘GRC’ is one that is interpreted in many ways.
    • When I ask practitioners within a company what they mean when they use the term, most say it stands for ‘governance, risk, and compliance’ but cannot explain why anybody would use that term to describe the totality implied by the expression; they may wave their hands in the air and say “what does GRC mean? You know…. it means GRC”. They cannot explain why they don’t refer to governance, or governance and risk management, or risk management and compliance. Sometimes they talk as if GRC is something in the air, something related to the culture of the organization as much as anything else.
    • When I ask people at the IIA, they say it stands for ‘governance, risk, and controls’; in other words, the totality of what internal auditors work on. I don’t personally see anything new in this, nor any value in using the term. In fact, using it with ‘controls’ instead of the more usage of ‘compliance’ is only going to confuse.
    • When I talk to software vendors, they either describe their software solutions (as if GRC is technology) or describe the business solutions that their technology supports.
    • When I read papers from consultants, I find that if I substitute the phrase ‘risk management’ every time they say ‘GRC’, the piece makes more sense. In other words, they are usually talking about risk management but for some reason (some would say to hype the discussion) they use the term GRC instead.
    • When I talk to the people at OCEG and those who follow OCEG and its definition of GRC, they use a definition that makes more sense. That definition adds value by emphasizing the needs for all parts of the organization to work together.
  • GRC is not about technology. It is about (as I said last year) “how we can optimize outcomes and performance, addressing uncertainty (risk management) and acting with integrity (regulatory compliance and organizational values)”.
  • The key to optimizing outcomes is to for management (with board approval) to set the appropriate strategies, objectives, and goals, and then everything flows from there: managing risks to strategies, managing performance against strategies, and acting with integrity (which includes compliance with applicable laws and regulations) at all times.
  • No technology vendor (not even SAP and Oracle, who have the greatest breadth and depth of solutions IMHO) has a complete solution that addresses all GRC needs. The last time I said that, in a September post, several vendors wrote to tell me they had everything. But, they simply didn’t. They have everything that they chose to call GRC, but none included strategy management, support for governance activities like board packages and whistleblower lines, risk management including automated and integrated key risk indicators, compliance training and monitoring, performance management, legal case management, and so on.
  • The analysts like Gartner and Forrester have a business model where they need to define technology using buckets. But those buckets do not reflect what individual companies actually need, so their analyses and ratings may be interesting but may well steer organizations to acquire solutions (such as a so-called ‘EGRC platform’) that are not the best use of scarce resources. I would not advise any organization to base their purchase decision on an analyst rating of ‘GRC’, ‘EGRC’ or other made-up bucket of fish.

Where I believe we differ is that I do not advocate the use of the term ‘GRC’.

As I inferred, if not explicitly stated in my post last November, I believe that if the term ‘GRC’ is not dead (and apparently it lingers on), then it should be put to death.

I do not see the value in business people talking about GRC. I have said before and will say again, managers should look to fixing the processes they know need work.

For example, few organizations have effective processes for developing strategies and objectives at the corporate level, cascading them down throughout the organization so every individual knows what they need to do if the organization is to succeed, and minimizing individual objectives that are not clearly necessary to corporate achievement –then rewarding individuals, at least in part, for performance against those cascaded objectives. I have worked at several organizations where we were told what the corporate objectives were and asked to link our personal objectives to them. That is not the same thing. That is tying our personal objectives onto a branch of the corporate objectives, rather than making sure that all the roots of that corporate objective tree are healthy – even when we should be responsible for the health of a root or two.

Another example is the effectiveness of risk management. Most organizations practice enterprise list management at best (i.e., they manage a limited number of risks on a periodic basis), when mature risk management that is dynamic, iterative, and responsive to change, integrated into decision-making at all levels of the organization and into every aspect of daily operations, is essential to success.

Does using the term ‘GRC’ mean anything useful for internal auditors? No. They should continue to “up their game” from a focus on controls and risks that matter to operating management, to providing assurance and insight on organizational governance and risk management.

Effective GRC for OCEG means the integration, among other things, of strategy and risk management. But how many organizations do that well? How many executives receive and manage their area using an integrated report or dashboard that shows for each of their strategies both the current level of performance and the current state of related risks? How many executives see that not only have they accelerated up to the desired level of 100kph but are less than 100m from hitting a brick wall?

So here’s my recommendation to all: stop talking about GRC and start talking the language of the business. Let’s talk about how we can increase value to stakeholders, address potential obstacles and seize opportunities to excel, act with integrity and remain in compliance with current and anticipated regulations, and manage the organization to success.

Don’t try to fix GRC. Fix those parts of the business, those business processes, that are broken.

Good Riddance grC.

I welcome your comments.

What is effective risk management?

April 12, 2014 15 comments

Some say that risk management is effective when it has all the components described in their favorite standard (ISO 31000:2009) or framework (COSO ERM). (COSO ERM specifically states this as the requirement).

Some say that risk management is effective when all the principles in their favorite guidance are present and functioning. (ISO talks about its “set of principles that organisations must follow to achieve effective risk management.”) The principles are (from a consultant’s site that provides a high-level view of the standard):

  • Creates and protects value;
  • Is an integral part of all of the organisation’s processes;
  • Forms part of decision making;
  • Explicitly expresses uncertainty;
  • Is systematic, structured and timely;
  • Is based on the best available information;
  • Is tailored to the organisation;
  • Takes human and cultural factors into account;
  • Is transparent and inclusive;
  • Is dynamic, iterative and responsive to change; and
  • Facilitates continual improvement of the organisation.

Some say that risk management is effective when activities are compliant with the organization’s related policies and standards. But are those policies and standards adequate?

Some will say that risk management is effective when the board, operating and executive management believe it adds value and are satisfied that it provides the information they require. I believe that has merit but they may be satisfied with less than mature risk management (that seems to be the case with many current organizations who are satisfied with enterprise list management, until they are caught short).

Some will say that risk management is effective when an independent assessment/audit/examination is performed and the report says so. The trouble is that the people who do such audits generally rely on one of the above criteria (components present, principles in operation, etc.)

I would like to suggest a different approach.

Let’s start by considering why organizations should have risk management. It’s NOT because laws and regulations mandate it in many cases. It’s NOT because people say you need it. It’s because effective risk management provides a level of assurance that an organization will not only achieve its objectives (or exceed them) but will set the best objectives.

Quoting from COSO ERM:

“Enterprise risk management helps an entity get to where it wants to go and avoid pitfalls and surprises along the way.”

COSO explains that effective risk management enables:

  • “A greater likelihood of achieving business objectives”
  • “More informed risk-taking and decision-making”

Irish guidance on the ISO 31000:2009 risk management standard says:

“The purpose of managing risk is to increase the likelihood of an organization achieving its objectives by being in a position to manage threats and adverse situations and being ready to take advantage of opportunities that may arise.”

The Australian mining company, BHP Billiton, has a risk management policy signed by its CEO. It includes:

“Risk is inherent in our business. The identification and management of risk is central to delivering on the Corporate Objective.

  • By understanding and managing risk we provide greater certainty and confidence for our shareholders, employees, customers and suppliers, and for the communities in which we operate.
  • Successful risk management can be a source of competitive advantage.
  • Risk Management will be embedded into our critical business activities, functions and processes. Risk understanding and our tolerance for risk will be key considerations in our decision making.

“The effective management of risk is vital to the continued growth and success of our Group.”

I like what E&Y has to say:

“An effective [ERM] capability provides value by giving organizations the confidence to take on risk, rather than avoid it.

“By effectively managing the right risks, management has more timely, comprehensive and a deeper understanding of risk which, in turn, facilitates better decision-making and confidence to take on new ventures or even to accept higher levels of risk.”

So we can see that, as the BHP CEO said, effective risk management is not only essential to the success of an organization but “can be a source of competitive advantage”.

For the last year or two, I have been saying that you assess the effectiveness of risk management by asking decision-makers at all levels whether the risk information is enabling them to make better decisions and be more successful.

In other words, assess risk management not by its structure but by its effect.

I still think that is a key test, but I am going to add a new dimension to my thinking.

Let’s consider a company that has significant foreign currency exposure. It does business globally so it has bank accounts in a number of countries and has both payables and receivables in different currencies.

There are a number of strategies for reducing foreign exchange risk, but to manage the risk effectively you need to know what is happening with rates as well as how your bank account balances, payables, and receivables are changing.

If this company only has the ability to understand its foreign exchange risk once a month, in other words its monitoring of this risk is only monthly because that is the only time it is able to obtain all the necessary information and calculate its exposure, the risk is much higher than if it has the processes, people, and systems to monitor its exposure daily or better.

However, the investment necessary to upgrade the risk monitoring from monthly to daily may be significant. The company has to decide whether the reduction in exchange risk that can be improved by upgrading risk monitoring justifies the additional expense.

Until it upgrades risk monitoring, there is a risk that the information provided by risk management is insufficient. Management needs to decide whether that is an acceptable level of risk.

If management decides that the level of risk is too high, then I would say that the risk management program is less than effective. It is not providing the information necessary for management to take the right risks. But if management decides that the level of risk is acceptable, then that would not prevent me from assessing risk management as effective.

Let’s take another situation. An organization is concerned about its reputation risk. It has engaged a company to monitor reputation risk indicators (using social media analytics) and report once each quarter. However, it is in an industry where customer satisfaction can move quickly and significantly.

Quarterly risk monitoring creates a risk that the risk management program is not providing the information necessary to manage risks to the enterprise objectives. As in the prior example, management will need to decide whether an investment in more frequent reputation risk monitoring is justified by the potential reduction in reputation risk (because it would increase the ability to respond to customer complaints, etc.)

If management decides that quarterly risk monitoring represents a risk outside acceptable ranges, I would say that the risk management program is less than effective. It is not providing the information necessary for management to take the right risks, and management has determined that this is a risk (the risk of a bad decision) is unacceptable.

One final example. The company has an excellent risk management framework, formal policies and procedures, processes, and enabling systems. However, in the last year the level of staff turnover among the champions of risk management in the executive ranks and among the risk officers themselves means that the experience of the individuals relied upon to monitor, understand, assess, evaluate, and respond to risks has diminished.

There is an increased likelihood than in prior years that risks will not be managed as desired, the wrong risks taken, and that risk information that flows to top management and the board may not be reliable.

This is a deficiency in the operation of risk management and may represent a risk to the achievement of objectives because it results in less than reliable risk information on which decisions are based. If the risk is unacceptable, then until it is treated and brought back to within acceptable ranges I would say that the risk management program is less than effective.

So, where am I going?

If we revisit the objective of risk management, we see that we rely on it to provide management and the board with the information they need to run the business, make better decisions, and take the right risks.

But risk management is not and never will be perfect.

It is impossible to monitor every risk, including new risks, in real time and provide useful information – also in real time – to the people who need to act on it.

There will always be risk champions who are new to the company and because they don’t understand the business and their risk-related responsibilities, will fail in that respect.

There will be times when the people required to provide expert insight when assessing and evaluating risks are on vacation, sick, or otherwise unable to participate.

There will always be a risk that the risk management program fails to provide the information necessary for decision-making.

The key is whether that risk is known and is considered acceptable.

If the risk is acceptable, then I would consider the risk management program as effective.

That is not to say that all the principles described in ISO 31000 are not necessary, or that the components discussed in COSO ERM are not required. But, that is the structure of the program and that doesn’t mean it is effective and produces the results necessary for the organization to succeed.

Bottom line: CROs and executive management should assess their risk management program (auditors can help) and determine whether the level of risk that it will provide insufficient information to run the business, make informed decisions, and take the right risks is acceptable.

OK, I understand that this is a little complicated and a very different way of thinking about effective risk management. Does it make sense?

I welcome your views.

New Paper on Risk Assessment and the Audit Plan

March 15, 2014 14 comments

One of the software vendors that have been providing solutions for internal auditors for many years is Thomson Reuters. With annual revenues of nearly $13 billion, they are one of the few large software companies in this space. So when they speak, I tend to pay attention.

Thomson Reuters recently published a paper written by a former senior manager with E&Y. Entitled “Get Your Internal Audit Risk Assessment Right This Year” (registration required), the paper purports to share best practices for internal audit risk assessment.

Unfortunately, it fails to deliver on that promise.

While it includes some useful guidance for the discussions every internal audit team should have with management, it barely touches the surface of the issue.

I do agree with this statement: “the Internal Audit Risk Assessment presents an oft-missed opportunity for internal auditors to understand their organization’s evolving objectives and implement a more dynamic risk-based approach to the internal audit process.”

The last sentence in the report starts to get to the real point: “With no sign of the pace of changes affecting your organization slowing down, internal audit’s risk assessment must be dynamic, not static, and needs to be improved from year to year, using a top down approach, beginning with management interviews and input.”

Here are the two main problems with that last sentence:

  1. The internal audit assessment of risk and updating of the internal audit plan should be far more frequent than the annual cycle implied by the report. Many departments are moving to a quarterly update, and best practice (in my opinion and which I personally followed) is a rolling quarterly plan that is updated as often as the risks change.
  2. While management interviews and input are useful, they are hardly the best place to start. The internal audit team should understand whether and how the organization as a whole has identified the more significant risks to the achievement of its objectives. While not clearly stated in this report, I will give credit to the author for understanding that internal audit should focus on risks to the organization as a whole, and not risks to a location, business unit, or process. However, the organization’s risk management program is not mentioned as a source of information that drives, at least in part, the audit plan! It is also critically essential that internal audit has a deep understanding of the business, its processes, systems, organization and systems, sufficient to challenge management’s assessment of risk – or make its own assessment when there is no ERM in place.

My recommendation: read the report for tips on how to interview management. But, go into that set of discussions with either the organization’s risk ‘register’ or another document that can drive a discussion about which are the risks to the organization that matter – and where the assurance and consulting/advisory services provided by internal audit can be of value. (I have shared a number of files on Box, including a Risk Universe slide you may find useful. Please go to this tab on my web site to download.)

Ask yourself this: do your internal audit plan and the process around it ensure that appropriate engagements are performed on the risks that matter to the organization, when that assurance or advisory service is needed?

Risk Officers on the Front Lines of the Big Data Analytics Revolution

March 8, 2014 4 comments

I was intrigued to read that when McKinsey gathered together “eight executives from companies that are leaders in data analytics …. to share perspectives on their biggest challenges”, they included not only chief information officers and marketing executives, but the chief risk officer from American Express.

The McKinsey Quarterly report that reviews the discussion doesn’t have any ground-breaking revelations. They say what has been said before, although it is still important for all of us to understand the enormous potential of Big Data Analytics.

One key point is that the existence of Big Data by itself has very limited value. It’s the ability to use emerging technology (from companies like SAP, Oracle, and IBM) to not only mine the data but deliver insights at blinding speed (using in-memory technology) that will bring amazing results.

But I was looking for more, which I explain after these quotes.

Big-data analytics are delivering an economic impact in the organization… The reality of where and how data analytics can improve performance varies dramatically by company and industry.

Companies need to operate along two horizons: capturing quick wins to build momentum while keeping sight of longer-term, ground-breaking applications. Although, as one executive noted, “We carefully measure our near-term impact and generate internal ‘buzz’ around these results,” there was also a strong belief in the room that the journey crosses several horizons. “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said one participant. Many believed that the real prize lies in reimagining existing businesses or launching entirely new ones based on the data companies possess.

New opportunities will continue to open up. For example, there was a growing awareness, among participants, of the potential of tapping swelling reservoirs of external data—sometimes known as open data—and combining them with existing proprietary data to improve models and business outcomes.

Privacy has become the third rail in the public discussion of big data, as media accounts have rightly pointed out excesses in some data-gathering methods. Little wonder that consumer wariness has risen.

Our panelists presume that in the data-collection arena, the motives of companies are good and organizations will act responsibly. But they must earn this trust continually; recovering from a single privacy breach or misjudgment could take years. Installing internal practices that reinforce good data stewardship, while also communicating the benefits of data analytics to customers, is of paramount importance. In the words of one participant: “Consumers will trust companies that are true to their value proposition. If we focus on delivering that, consumers will be delighted. If we stray, we’re in problem territory.”

To catalyze analytics efforts, nearly every company was using a center of excellence, which works with businesses to develop and deploy analytics rapidly. Most often, it includes data scientists, business specialists, and tool developers. Companies are establishing these centers in part because business leaders need the help. Centers of excellence also boost the organization-wide impact of the scarce translator talent described above. They can even help attract and retain talent: at their best, centers are hotbeds of learning and innovation as teams share ideas on how to construct robust data sets, build powerful models, and translate them into valuable business tools.

What I was disappointed in was a lack of reference to how Big Data Analytics could and should be a fantastic opportunity for risk officers and internal audit executives.

All practitioners should be familiar with the concept of Key Risk Indicators (KRI). A useful paper by COSO defines KRI:

“Key risk indicators are metrics used by organizations to provide an early signal of increasing [ndm: they should have said ‘changing’] risk exposures in various areas of the enterprise. In some instances, they may represent key ratios that management throughout the organization track as indicators of evolving risks, and potential opportunities, which signal the need for actions that need to be taken. Others may be more elaborate and involve the aggregation of several individual risk indicators into a multi-dimensional score about emerging events that may lead to new risks or opportunities.”

Some vendors (including MetricStream, IBM, and SAP) are showing us the way in which Big Data Analytics can be used to produce KRIs that are more powerful and insightful than ever before.

However, I am not convinced that practitioners are seizing the opportunity.

I fear that they are concerned about the risks as their organizations embrace Big Data Analytics to drive performance while remaining blind to the opportunity to develop KRIs so that business executives can take the right risks.

I would appreciate your views. Is it a matter of cost? Or are happy simply unaware of the potential?

Questions for the Audit Committee to ask the External Auditors in early 2014

February 15, 2014 4 comments

The Audit Committee of the Board (or equivalent) is responsible for oversight of the external auditors’ work. This should include taking reasonable measures to ensure a quality audit on which the board and stakeholders can place reliance. As a second priority, it should also include ensuring that the audit work is efficient and does not result in unnecessary disruption or cost to the business.

Audit Committees around the world should be concerned by the findings of the regulators who audit the firms in the US (the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, or PCAOB). They examine a sample of the audits by the firms of public companies’ financial statements and system of internal control over financial reporting. A report is published for each firm and an overall report is also published every few years.

In their October 24, 2013 Staff Alert, the PCAOB highlighted “deficiencies [they] observed in audits of internal control over financial reporting”. They reported that “firms failed to obtain sufficient audit evidence to support their opinions on the effectiveness of internal control due to one or more deficiencies”. In addition, in a large majority of the audits where there were such deficiencies, “the firm also failed to obtain sufficient appropriate evidence to support its opinion on the financial statements”.

While the Staff Alert is intended to help the firms understand and correct deficiencies, it also calls for action by the Audit Committee of each registrant:

“Audit committees of public companies for which audits of internal control are conducted may want to take note of this alert. Audit committees may want to discuss with their auditor the level of auditing deficiencies in this area identified in their auditor’s internal inspections and PCAOB inspections, request information from their auditor about potential root causes, and inquire how their auditor is responding to these matters.”

In a related matter, COSO released an update last year to its venerable Internal Control – Integrated Framework. It includes a discussion of 17 Principles and related Points of Focus. Reportedly, the audit firms and consultants are developing checklists that require management to demonstrate, with suitable evidence, that all the Principles (and in some cases the Points of Focus) are present and functioning. This ignores the fact that COSO has publicly stated that their framework remains risk-based and they never intended nor desired that anybody make a checklist out of the Principles.

Of note is the fact that the PCAOB and SEC have not changed their auditing standards and guidance. They continue, as emphasized in the PCAOB Staff Alert, to require a risk-based and top-down approach to the assessment of internal control over financial reporting.

However, the checklist approach does not consider whether a failure to have any of these Principles or Points of Focus present and functioning represents a risk to the financial statements that would be material.

In other words, blind completion of the checklist is contrary to PCAOB and SEC guidance that the assessment be risk-based and top-down.

With that in mind, I suggest the members of the Audit Committee consider asking their lead audit partner these seven questions at their next meeting. An early discussion is essential if a quality audit is to be performed without unnecessary work and expense to the company.

1. Was your audit of our company’s financial statements and system of internal control reviewed by the PCAOB? If so:

  • For which year was it reviewed?
  • Did the Examiners report anything they considered a deficiency?
    • How significant did they believe it was?
    • Do you agree with their assessment? If not, why not?
    • What actions have been taken to correct that deficiency?
    • What actions will you take to ensure it or similar deficiencies do not recur, including additional training of the staff?
    • Has any disciplinary action been considered?
  • If you did not promptly report this to us, why not?

2. Were any of the partners and managers part of the audit team on a client where the PCAOB Examiners reviewed and had issues with the quality of the audit? If so:

  • What was the nature of any deficiency?
  • How significant did the Examiners consider it to be?
  • What actions have you taken and will continue to take to ensure it and similar deficiencies do not occur on our audit, including additional staff training?

3. Are there any members of your audit team who have been counseled formally or otherwise relating to quality issues identified either by the PCAOB or other quality assurance processes? What assurance can you provide us that you will perform a quality audit without additional cost to us for enhanced supervision and quality control?

4. With respect to the audit of internal control over financial reporting, have you coordinated with management to ensure optimal efficiency, including:

  • A shared assessment of the financial reporting risks, significant accounts and locations, etc., to include in the scope of work for the SOX assessment? In other words, have you ensured you have identified the same financial reporting risks as management?
  • The opportunity to place reliance on management testing? Have you discussed and explained why if you are placing less than maximum reliance on management testing in low or medium risk areas?
  • The processes for sharing the results of testing, changes in the system of internal control, and other information important to both your and management’s assessment?

5. Are you taking a top-down and risk-based approach to the assessment of internal control over financial reporting?

6. Does the top-down and risk-based approach include your processes for assessing whether the COSO Principles are present and functioning? Do your processes ensure that neither in your own work nor in your requirements of management addressing areas relating to the Principles and their Points of Focus where a failure would present less than a reasonable possibility of a material misstatement of the financial statements filed with the SEC? Have you limited your own audit work to areas where there is at least a reasonable possibility that a failure would represent at least a reasonable possibility of a material error – directly or through their effect on other controls relied upon to either prevent or detect such errors? Or have you developed and are using a checklist contrary to the requirements of Auditing Standard No. 5, instead of taking a risk-based approach?

7. How do you ensure continuous improvement in the quality and efficiency of your audit work?

I welcome your comments.

Internal Auditors should be Brave

February 9, 2014 9 comments

It can be hard for internal auditors to tell their stakeholders, whether at board level or in top management, what is putting the organization at greatest risk.

It can be hard to say that the root cause for control failures is that there aren’t enough people, or that the company does not pay enough to attract the best people.

It can be hard to tell the CEO or the audit committee that the executive team does not share information, its members compete with each other for the CEO’s attention, and as a group it fails to meet any person’s definition of a team.

It can be hard to say that the CFO or General Counsel is not considered effective by the rest of management, who tend to ignore and exclude them.

It can be hard to say that the organization’s structure, process, people, and methods are insufficiently agile to succeed in today’s dynamic world.

But these are all truths that need to be told.

If the emperor is not told he has no clothes, he will carry on without them.

Internal auditors at every level are subject to all kinds of pressure that may inhibit them from speaking out:

  • They may believe, with justification, that their job is at risk
  • They may believe, with justification, that their compensation will be directly affected if they alienate top management
  • They may believe that their career within the organization will go no further without the support of top management, even if they receive the support of the board
  • The level of resources provided to internal audit will probably be limited, even cut
  • The CEO and other top executives have personal power that is hard to oppose
  • They are focused on “adding value” and do not want to be seen as obstacles
  • They fear they will never get anything done, will not be able to influence change, and will be shut out of meetings and denied essential information if they are seen as the enemy

Yet, if internal auditors are to be effective, they need to be able to speak out – even at great personal risk.

It would be great if internal auditors were protected from the inevitable backlash. I know of at least one CAE that has a contract that provides a measure of protection, but most are only protected by their personal ethics and moral values.

It would be great if the audit committee of the board ensured that the CAE is enabled to be brave. But few will oppose an angry CEO or CFO.

We need to be brave, but not reckless. There are ways to tell the emperor about his attire without losing your neck. They include talking and listening to allies and others who can help you. They include talking to the executives in one-on-one meetings where they are not threatened by the presence of others. Above all, it is about not surprising the emperor when he is surrounded by the rest of the imperial court.

It is about treating the communication of bad news as a journey, planning each step carefully and preparing the ground for every discussion.

It is also about being prepared to listen and if you are truly wrong being prepared to modify the message.

But, the internal auditor must be determined to tell the truth and do so in a way that clearly explains the facts and what needs to be done.

I close with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the song Brave by Sara Bareilles (well worth watching) become our anthem.

You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up

Everybody’s been there,
Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy
Fallen for the fear
And done some disappearing,
Bow down to the mighty
Don’t run, just stop holding your tongue

And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good,
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave
With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

What Audit Committees (Should) Want

January 25, 2014 8 comments

Michele Hooper is a highly-respected (including by me) member and chair of audit committees. She has been a passionate advocate for internal audit and its profession for many years and an advisor to the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA). In addition, she has been very active with the Center for Audit Quality (CAQ), which is where I met her (she was chair of a CAQ meeting in San Francisco to discuss fraud and I was present as a representative of the IIA).

In December, Michele was interviewed for an article in Internal Auditor (Ia), What Audit Committees Want.

The article brings out some important points. I agree with some and disagree with others (in part because they are left unsaid).

The very first sentence is telling:

“I rely on CAEs to be my eyes and ears in the organization, reporting back on culture, tone, and potential issues that may be emerging within the business”.

The expression ‘eyes and ears’ is an old and perhaps tired phrase. On one hand, it implies that internal audit is spying on management and then running, like a child, to tell on it. On the other, it describes the important role of internal audit as a source of critical information to the board on what is happening within the organization, which may be different from what they are hearing from management.

I can accept that, but what I especially like and appreciate are the next words: “culture, tone, and potential issues that may be emerging within the business”.

Michele is not talking about controls. She is not even talking directly about the management of risk. She is talking first about the culture and tone of the organization, and then about emerging business risks and related issues.

Does your internal audit function provide the board and its audit committee with a sense of the culture and tone within the organization – at the top, in the middle, and in the trenches? If not, why not?

Does your internal audit function ensure that the board is aware of new and emerging business risks and related issues? If not, why not?

Then Michele goes astray:

“An important responsibility critical to audit committee and board discussions is the CAE’s ownership and prioritization of the process management framework for risk identification.”

The CAE should not own the process for identifying and prioritizing risks. The IIA has made that clear in its famous Position Paper: The Role of Internal Auditing in Enterprise-Wide Risk Management. It says: “Management is responsible for establishing and operating the risk management framework on behalf of the board….. Internal auditor’s core role in relation to ERM should be to provide assurance to management and to the board on the effectiveness of risk management”.

When Michele is asked about the risks she and the audit committee will worry about in 2014, she comments on:

  • Culture
  • Tone
  • Internal control
  • Compliance, especially regulatory compliance
  • Cyber vulnerabilities
  • Financial reporting
  • Reputation risk, and
  • Oversight of the external auditor

What she does not mention are:

  • The effectiveness of the organization’s ability to manage risks to the achievement of objectives
  • The effectiveness of governance processes
  • The need for the audit committee to work collaboratively with other board committees, such as the risk and governance committees, to ensure risks are managed at acceptable levels

I wish she had. I especially wish she had mentioned the magic word:

ASSURANCE

Let’s return to basics, but with a new twist: a new explanation of the primary purpose and value of internal auditing.

Internal audit provides objective assurance to the board and top management of the effectiveness of the entity’s organization, people, processes, and systems in managing risks to the achievement of the entity’s objectives at acceptable levels.

Does your internal audit department provide that assurance, formally, to the board and top management?

 

What they don’t know will probably hurt them

January 18, 2014 8 comments

It is always interesting to read the various studies that report that directors don’t have an in-depth understanding of their organization’s business, its strategies, and the related risks. In fact, the studies generally report that the level of understanding is insufficient for them to provide effective oversight of management and governance of the organization.

I want to turn this on its head.

If you are the head of risk management, internal audit, information security, or a senior executive, answer this question:

Do you believe that your directors have a sufficient understanding of the reality that is the organization: its culture and politics; the effectiveness of its people, systems and processes; its strategies; and whether risks to the achievement of its objectives and delivery of value to its stakeholders are being managed within acceptable tolerances?

If not, do you have an obligation to help educate the directors? What are you doing about it and is that sufficient?

Now let’s ask another question?

Do you believe that your top executives (including the CEO and CFO) have a sufficient understanding of the reality that is the organization: its culture and politics; the effectiveness of its people, systems and processes; and whether risks to the achievement of its objectives and delivery of value to its stakeholders are being managed within acceptable tolerances?

If not, do you have an obligation to help educate them? What are you doing about it and is that sufficient?

If the directors and/or top executives don’t understand reality the way you do, if their head is in the sand or in a more pungent place, shouldn’t your priority be to help them get their head on straight, pointed in the right direction? If they don’t understand the current state of the organization, shouldn’t the process of informing and educating them be fixed before trying to communicate new areas of concern?

I welcome your views and commentary.

Digital Transformation

December 14, 2013 10 comments

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to an MIT Sloan video, “What Digital Transformation Means for Business”. It features executives from Intel, Avis (the president of Zipcar), a researcher into the topic from MIT, and a Capgemini consultant.

It’s about 45 minutes long, so allow yourself some quiet time and have a pad and pencil (or tablet) handy so you can take notes.

I found it inspiring to hear these influential leaders talk about the need for organizations to embrace disruptive technology (they mentioned cloud computing, ultramobile, advanced big data analytics, and social media).

They also emphasized that the risk of NOT embracing the technology of tomorrow, even when they are in the process of implementing the technology of today, is too great. It is critical to continue to watch and consider how the technology that appears on the horizon may affect the ability of the organization to excel.

I loved the story told by the Intel CIO of how she assigns her staff to work within the business to learn it, and then takes them back into IT so they can work on enhancing that business.

You should also listen to how Intel uses gamification to have a better handle on earnings forecasts. It was a great example of how gamification can be used as a technique for understanding and assessing risk. I have written separately about how an organization assessed risks to the success of a major software implementation by creating a stock market game around it. Individuals on the project team from IT and user departments, the consultants they engaged, and others with a stake in its success bought and sold fictional stock in the project. The stock price varied based on demand: when there was optimism, people bought stock and the price rose; when there was pessimism, people sold and the price dropped. The risk assessment considered the stock price and tried to understand why it moved.

Intel and Avis, together with Capgemini, talked about how much time executives were spending on digital transformation. Clearly, these companies (and I join them) expect leaders from the CEO on down to be spending a good amount of time looking at and considering the technology of today and tomorrow and how it can transform their business.

What do you think?

You might also consider this discussion on the battle between IT and the business for control over technology resources.

I close with my greetings to all for a healthy, prosperous, and joyous holiday season and new year.

Reflections on Strategic Risk

November 24, 2013 31 comments

Surveys say people are paying more attention to so-called “strategic risk”. The latest from Deloitte, called Risk Angles, says:

“Strategic risk is not new; however, in a world where risks are hastened along by business trends and technological innovations, strategic risk management has taken on new urgency. In fact, according to a recently published global survey of more than 300 companies, conducted by Forbes Insights on behalf of Deloitte, 94% say they aren’t just increasing their focus on managing strategic risks; they are changing how they do it – most often by incorporating strategic risk management into their business strategy and planning processes.”

There’s a Strategic Risk Management magazine, my friends at RIMS (the risk management society) have a paper and web page on strategic risk management, and according to a report from IIA, internal auditors in the USA need to pay more attention to strategic risks. In fact, earlier this year the IIA released a Practice Advisory (which is considered “strongly recommended guidance”) on “Internal Audit Coverage of Risks to Achieving Strategic Objectives”.

This sounds right, but it is worth exploring further.

For a start, just what is “strategic risk”?

RIMS says that “Strategic Risk Management (SRM) is a business discipline that drives deliberation and action regarding uncertainties and untapped opportunities that affect an organization’s strategy and strategy execution”.

A 2011 article by (originator of Deloitte’s excellent Risk Intelligence series) Mark Frigo and Richard Anderson, “What is Strategic Risk Management”, defines SRM as “a process for identifying, assessing and managing risks and uncertainties, affected by internal and external events or scenarios, that could inhibit an organization’s ability to achieve its strategy and strategic objectives with the ultimate goal of creating and protecting shareholder value. It is a primary component and necessary foundation of Enterprise Risk Management”.

The IIA doesn’t really define strategic risk, but says “Executive management is responsible for identifying and managing risk in pursuit of the organization’s strategic objectives. It is the board’s responsibility to ensure that all strategic risks are identified, understood, and managed to an acceptable level within risk tolerance ranges. Internal audit should have an understanding of the organization’s strategy, how it is executed, the associated risks, and how these risks are being managed.”

In Risk Angles, Deloitte defines strategic risks as “risks that have a major effect on a company’s business strategy decisions, or are created by those decisions. So they tend to have a larger and more widespread impact than the other types of risk that businesses have traditionally focused on, in areas such as operations, finance and compliance.”

Leaving aside the error in some of these definitions that risk management is only about the downside and not the seizing of opportunities, there is a larger question:

If risk is the effect of uncertainty on objectives (the ISO definition, but if you read COSO ERM carefully, you will see they essentially say the same thing), then how is “strategic” risk different?

In fact, if a risk doesn’t have a significant potential effect on the organizations strategies and goals, why should we worry about it?

Aren’t all risks that matter therefore “strategic risks”?

A compliance risk can significantly affect an organization’s ability to achieve its strategic goals. Just ask JP Morgan Chase as they consider their multi-billion dollar fines.

An operational risk, such as the floods in Thailand that shut down hard drive manufacturers, can cripple an organization.

We could stop there and conclude that the concept of something separate and distinct “strategic risk” is nonsense. But, I have a proposition for you to consider.

In the Introduction to the ISO 31000:2009 global risk management standard, there is this paragraph:

“Risk management can be applied to an entire organization, at its many areas and levels, at any time, as well as to specific functions, projects and activities.

You can (and should, in my opinion) take all your organization’s defined business strategies and goals and take a top-down approach to understanding and assessing the uncertainties surrounding achievement of each of those strategies. That should include assumptions that have been made, the things that need to go right, the things that could go wrong, and the events and circumstances that could lead you to surpassing your objectives. All of those uncertainties should be understood, an assessment made as to whether the risks are at acceptable levels, and actions taken as necessary to optimize outcomes.

I would call this top-down approach strategic risk management. It doesn’t preclude the individual risks being financial, compliance, green, blue, or whatever you want to name them.

At the same time, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with understanding and assessing risks at lower levels of the organization, such as those surrounding the use of technology. The key is to prioritize resources on the risks that matter to the organization as a whole over those that only matter to one department, business unit, or location.

In other words, if you are assessing risks within an area such as IT, Finance, or Human Resources, consider whether they will have an effect of any significance on the success of the organization as a whole in achieving its strategies and strategic goals in the pursuit of value.

If they would, then you can choose to call them strategic, red, blue, or whatever. If not, perhaps they relate to activities that are not relevant to the organization’s objectives and which can be cut back.

Personally, I prefer to focus on the risks that matter to the organization’s success. I just call them risks.

What do you think?

The Optimal Role for the CIO

November 16, 2013 2 comments

Deloitte has given us food for thought in an article “The Four Faces of the CIO”.

Fortunately, they are not talking about a devious executive. Instead, they are talking about four different key roles that every CIO has to play.

The roles are:

  • Catalyst: As a catalyst, the CIO acts as a credible, enterprisewide change agent, instigating innovations that lead to new products or services; delivering IT capabilities in radically new ways; or significantly improving operations in IT and beyond. Catalysts have significant political capital and are able to enlist and align executive stakeholders. Their relentless focus on disruptive innovation and cross-functional teaming allows them to lead transformational change in IT and the business at large.
  • Strategist: “The CIO’s primary objective as strategist is to maximize the value delivered across all IT investments. The strategist has deep business knowledge and can engage as a credible partner, advising the business on how technology can enhance existing business capabilities or provide new ones. “The strategist also keeps the business apprised [sic] of distinctive IT capabilities that can drive revenue, create new opportunities, or mitigate and navigate risks and adverse events.”
  • Technologist: “As a technologist, the CIO is responsible for providing a technical architecture that increases business agility by managing complexity, supports highly efficient operations (to keep costs low), and is flexible and extendable enough to meet future business needs. Technologists also continually scan the horizon for new technologies, rigorously analyze and test those with promise, and then select the ones most apt to achieve enterprise architecture objectives (efficiency, agility, simplification, and innovation).”
  • Operator: “As an operator, the CIO oversees the reliable day-to-day delivery of IT services, applications, and data. Operators manage the department, and hire, develop, and lead IT staff. They institute service level agreements with IT customers and ensure performance targets for IT services are achieved. They maintain transparent IT cost models and charge the business appropriately for IT services. Operators also source technology, services, and staff, and govern those third-party relationships. Among the biggest challenges for operators are protecting the organization against cyber attacks and ensuring regulatory compliance.”

In this world of dynamic and business model-shattering technological change, it is essential that the CIO take her rightful place as a business leader. The Strategist and Catalyst roles are of massive importance if an organization is to succeed.

This is recognized in a survey by Deloitte of where CIO’s actually spend their time vs. where they want to spend their time:

  • 36% as an operator, compared to a desired level of 14%
  • 43% as either strategist of catalyst, compared to a desired level of 71%

I believe that boards should be asking the CIO, and whoever she reports to, where she spends her time. If the dominant portion is not as Strategist and Catalyst, they should ask why not.

Risk officers should consider whether there is a risk to the business if the CIO is predominantly a passive Operator, and the CAE should consider how the situation can be improved.

I welcome your views.

If I was Chair of the Audit Committee

November 11, 2013 8 comments

If I was asked to join a board and serve as the chair of the audit committee (which I am qualified to do), I would apply the lessons from what seems like a lifetime of working with audit committees. In most cases, the chair was excellent and I would hope to be as effective as they were.

After what I would assume would be a thorough and detailed orientation to the organization and its challenges by such key people as the CEO, CFO and her direct reports, General Counsel, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Accounting Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Audit Executive, Chief Risk Officer, head of Investor Relations, Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, Chairman of the Board or Lead Independent Director, lead external audit partner, and outside counsel (and others, depending on the organization), I would turn my attention to the following:

  • Do I now have a fair understanding of how the organization creates value, its strategies, and the risks to those strategies?
  • Do I have a sufficient understanding of the organization’s business model, including its primary products, organization and key executives, business operations, partners, customers and suppliers, etc.?
  • How strong is the management team? Are there any individuals whose performance I need to pay attention to, perhaps asking more detailed questions when they provide information?
  • Who else is on the audit committee and do we collectively have the insight, experience, and understanding necessary to be effective? Where are the gaps and how will they be addressed?
  • What are the primary financial reporting risks and how well are they addressed? What areas merit, if any, special attention by the audit committee? Who should I look to for assurance they are being managed satisfactorily? Who owns the compliance program (if any) on controls over financial reporting, and how strong is the assessment team?
  • What are the other significant financial and other risks (for which risk management oversight has been delegated by the full board) that merit special attention? Who should I look to for assurance they are being managed satisfactorily?
  • How strong is the external audit team and how well do they work with management and the internal audit team? What are their primary concerns? Is their fee structure sufficient or excessive? Is their independence jeopardized by the services they provide beyond the financial statement audit (even if permitted by their standards)?
  • How strong is the internal audit team and does the CAE have the respect of the management team and the external auditor? Are they sufficiently resourced? Are they free from undue management influence (for example, is the CAE hoping for promotion to a position in management, does he have free access to the audit committee, and is his compensation set by management or the audit committee)? What are their primary concerns? Do they provide a formal periodic opinion on the adequacy of the organization’s processes for governance and management of risk, as well as the related controls? How do they determine what to audit?
  • Who owns and sets the agenda for the audit committee? Is there sufficient time and are there enough meetings to satisfy our oversight obligations?
  • Do the right people attend the audit committee meetings, such as the general counsel, CFO, CAE, CRO, CCO, chief accounting officer, and the external audit partner?
  • How does the approval process work for the periodic and annual filings with the regulator (e.g., the SEC)?
  • How are allegations of inappropriate conduct managed? Who owns the compliance hotline, who decides what will be investigated and how, and at what point is the audit committee involved? Is there assurance that allegations will be objectively investigated without retaliation?
  • What concerns do the other members of the audit committee have? Does the former chair of the committee have any advice?

I have probably missed a few items. What would you add?

Please share your comments and views.

Is it time to call the term “GRC” dead?

November 8, 2013 10 comments

While the ‘rest of the world’ thinks of “GRC” as governance, risk management, and compliance, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) uses the term to refer to governance, risk management, and [internal] control.

This is confusing. I can imagine a conversation between two people about “GRC” that continues for 20-30 minutes before they realize they are not talking about the same thing.

Taking the IIA usage first, it has meaning and relevance. While the term GRC is not used per se, the IIA’s definition of internal auditing says that internal audit provides assurance by assessing the organization’s processes for governance, risk management, and the related internal controls. So it has meaning, although (my opinion, not shared by IIA leadership) I wish they would come up with another acronym and stop confusing the greater number who think the C in GRC stands for compliance and not control.

In my experience most internal auditors, influenced presumably by consultants, software vendors, and thought leaders from OCEG, think of the C as standing for compliance and not [internal] control.

So let’s turn to the more common usage of GRC – governance, risk management, and compliance.

Earlier this year, in April, I wrote companion pieces on GRC:

Seven months on, I am starting to think that the term is becoming even more meaningless in practice.

Maybe we can ask the person who invented the term GRC. Although there is competition from PwC and others (including the founder of OCEG), it is generally recognized that Michael Rasmussen (a friend) made it popular while he was with Forrester Research. He needed a term to describe the bucket of software functionalities he was assessing and decided to use the term GRC.

The stimulus for this post and reflection on GRC is recent writing by Michael on his web site. Referring to himself as the GRC Pundit (others call him the King of GRC and he certainly has no peers), he lambasted Gartner for their ‘Magic Quadrant’ assessment of GRC solutions (I did the same, for different reasons, in an earlier post).

But it is worth noting that Paul Proctor of Gartner (not the individual responsible for their ‘Magic Quadrant’) said he hates the term GRC. He said:

“GRC is the most worthless term in the vendor lexicon. Vendors use it to describe whatever they are selling and Gartner clients use it to describe whatever problem they have.”

I love and agree with this sentiment.

To add to the confusion around GRC, Gartner has its own definition. However, the most common and most widely-recognized definition is the one from OCEG:

“GRC is a capability to reliably achieve objectives [GOVERNANCE] while addressing uncertainty [RISK MANAGEMENT] and acting with integrity [COMPLIANCE].”

We could leave it there, in a confused and confusing world.

But enough is not enough.

Gartner also has definitions and an assessment for IT GRC – whatever that is – and Michael, on his web site now refers (and sometimes gives awards to):

  • Identity and Access GRC
  • Legal GRC
  • 3rd Party GRC
  • Enterprise GRC
  • GRC gamification

Now I am not being fair to Michael, because I know what he is really doing. GRC is so broad, extending from processes to setting strategy and monitoring performance, through risk management to legal case management, internal audit management, information security, data governance, and more. So, he has diced up the software landscape into categories and awarded different vendors for their excellence in individual categories.

Is there any point to continuing to talk about GRC (except within the IIA with respect to their usage) when there are so many reasons there really is none?

I am privileged to be a Fellow of OCEG. They champion the concept of Principled Performance, referring to GRC (under their definition) as a capability that enables Principled Performance. Principled Performance is defined as:

“The reliable achievement of objectives while addressing uncertainty and acting with integrity”

Perhaps we can stop (except for the IIA) talking about GRC and start talking about how we can optimize outcomes and performance, addressing uncertainty (risk management) and acting with integrity (regulatory compliance and organizational values).

What do you think?

Or should we step back and just talk separately about organizational governance, performance management, risk management, ethics and compliance, information security, and so on?

I welcome your views.