View from the Chartered IIA: Firsts – meeting challenges with innovation

2020 has seen many firsts for the Chartered IIA, but perhaps none has been more adventurous – and symbolic – than our first
ever virtual conference. This  took place on 30 September and 1 October and was both an exciting challenge and a rapid learning curve for all concerned.

The overall benefits were familiar from previous conferences – the main highlight of course was the quality of perceptions and variety of experiences provided by both the keynote speakers and those who conducted breakout sessions. It was also a great opportunity to meet people “face to face” and discuss themes raised by the speakers as well as the common issues and challenges affecting all organisations in this strangest of years.

However, this conference was also full of experiences that were, at least to me, completely new – not least, being an avatar and navigating and interacting in a virtual world. In a year when social contact and gatherings have become so fraught with difficulties, it was exciting to see the way in which technology can help us to learn, communicate and forge relationships from the safety of our homes and offices. It was a sign of business as usual in unusual times and I was pleased to see some workplace teams taking the opportunity to gather as avatars in the activities room. One person told me this was the first time they’d really met each other for a long time.

This is also probably why one of the sessions that most resonated with me was that of Stevie Spring, chair of the mental health charity Mind, who focused on the fact that people are the greatest asset of any organisation and they need to be supported, particularly at times of stress and uncertainty. She emphasised how important it is that we ask people how we can help them to do their jobs better, rather than imposing “rules” from above. This is a subject close to my heart, since so much of what internal audit is about, both within the function and across the wider organisation, can be improved by managing people in the best way possible.

As we innovate and find new uses for technology, it is therefore essential that we continue to focus on how we enable and empower people to work in new ways, while also retaining and enhancing the qualities that make us human. This was a topic addressed by keynote speaker Andrew Hessel, geneticist and founder of Humane Genomics, who said that our conference was bold and innovative and unlike anything he had experienced before. He urged us to build on this to find new ways to communicate with our members and develop the profession in future.

Of course, the conference is not the only way in which the institute is exploring the opportunities that arise from the immense challenges we all face. This year we’ve undertaken significant and informative research to create reports on Internal Audit in Lockdown and on the impact of climate change. We are now embarking on research into how internal audit can offer assurance on cyber security and help to mitigate the risks of cyber attacks – how can we help to create a cyber-secure culture across organisations and ensure that auditors understand the full range of issues as they evolve and emerge? The survey will be live this month and we plan to report back by early spring.

Other innovations have included moving our training courses online or making them fully virtual. This was something we always intended to do, but Covid-19 accelerated the process dramatically. Our first virtual training course took place in early April, just a few weeks after lockdown began. If you had asked us to create a virtual course that fast a year ago, we would probably have dismissed it as impossible, however it is now our normal way of doing things.

We are also working to help members communicate with each other at a time when so many people have so many experiences that they should share and explore together. This is how we will find new solutions and possibilities in future. We already have a Heads of Internal Audit Forum and a Local Authority Forum, as well as a Women in Internal Audit network and we hope to find new ways to talk to people and share experiences across organisational boundaries in future.

It is equally important that we support members at all levels of their careers, not just those in management. We recently launched a training programme for the new Internal Audit Practitioner qualification and we’re proud to be the operating institute for this in Europe, collaborating and leading the way for all the European institutes (see page 72).

We have made great changes in order to fulfill our promise to members to remain open for business despite daunting circumstances and we have learnt much in the process. The important thing is not to go backwards when (and if) things return to “normal”.  We must all seize the opportunities to learn, innovate and develop further, while also looking after our people. Organisations need to be able to do what they do best faster and more efficiently – and internal audit must continue to provide the support they need to do it.

This article was first published in November 2020.