'Bottling' the lessons of COVID-19

All crises throw up opportunities as well as challenges and COVID-19 is no exception. Nicholas Crapp, Group Chief Audit Executive for NatWest, has seen the way in which his team has developed the way it works in response to the pandemic improving its relationship with its internal stakeholders. The big task now, he says, is to hold on to these lessons and “bottle” them to improve the way internal audit works in the future.

The huge challenges thrown up by COVID-19 made us become more relevant and more “in the moment”, which has given us the chance to add incredible value. We must not forget these lessons and we must seize the opportunities to redefine our relationship with our internal stakeholders and the support we offer our organisations.

There are three key areas that I think we have changed significantly in the past six months. What was most important initially was that we made sure we ran towards the fire and did not stand on the side-lines. We knew we could contribute, and we wanted to be involved.

First, we responded quickly to the need to offer assurance and feedback on the implementation of the government’s loan schemes. As part of that work we asked our behavioural risk team to look at the digital application process; their observations led to almost instant modification of the relevant web pages. The fact that there was no time to refine reports led to a continuous and constructive conversation. Management saw how we could help them to achieve rapid improvements and others are now asking for similar engagement.

Second, we had to create two sets of plans in double quick time, the first to focus on what was most important to the bank at the start of the crisis and then to look at how the crisis had impacted the bank and the coverage we would need to provide for the remainder of the year.

Third, we changed the way we work as a team and as a business. We thought we already worked flexibly, but I have been amazed at how giving people freedom to work around all the other issues they have had to deal with at home during lockdown has paid off. People have demonstrated how they can make it work if they can control their time and we must hold on to this in the future.

Our next task is to work out what we have gained and how we can bottle this learning and use it to create further improvements. NatWest has begun an organisation wide “Learning for the future” project, and we have conducted our own internal audit version. We interviewed 50 internal stakeholders and 50 team members collating the comments to identify key themes.

We are now refining a list of “quick wins” and finalising the top five actions that we need to take now to keep momentum going and signal that we are serious about change. These will be the most important fruits to preserve in the bottling process. Others will wait on the tree to be harvested later.

There are still huge questions to resolve when things go back to “normal”. For one thing, we will need to rethink our office space and needs. But good things can come from any great challenge and COVID-19 has given internal audit in many sectors a chance to redefine what we do and how we work. We must not waste this opportunity.

A longer piece on this subject by Nicholas Crapp will appear in the September issue of Audit & Risk magazine. 

Content reviewed: 8 April 2021