Rehashed Topics and Rubber Chicken

Just how many fraud presentations can you attend? Just how many times can you get an update on COSO? Just how many times can you learn more about IT? And just how long has it been since you attended a presentation — chapter meeting, conference, seminar — that was different, one that provided information you never heard before?

And exactly who is to blame?

As part of the extensive, ongoing, and delayed discussions about creativity we've been having so far this year (and it turns out it is pretty much the only conversation we've had this year — my apologies — honest, I'm going to change the topic as soon as we finish this post — of course, I won't be avoiding it in the future — it's still important — it's still a discussion all internal audit should be having — but I've really rambled on too long and it is time to move to other things ... a little like this parenthetical comment — in fact — where was I? Oh yeah!!) As part of the discussions about creativity we've been having, David Griffiths threw in an interesting point/question. "Should there be a general session at the London conference on seismic changes, or maybe a concurrent session devoted to it?"

Let me start by saying that in attending conferences through the years, while no session was specifically titled such, there has been some recognition (particularly at the general session level) of the need to talk about such subjects. (For example, I was honored last year when my creativity presentation was selected for a general session topic at All-Star.)

But there is a deeper question here, and I want to answer it obliquely — differently than answering the actual question. (Sound like an auditee now, don't I?) The content of any conference, seminar, or meeting is exactly what the members want; at least, it is what the members want as can best be deciphered by those who are planning the event. In other words, the planners of these events react to the expressed wishes and needs of those who will be attending. Which implies, they cannot read the minds of those who do not express their wishes.

What that means is that they must respond to the information that is available to them in trying to build the best event they can. I know for a fact (having had experience in planning all three of these types of events) that planners look closely at what participants have responded to, and what they indicate they want. Planners pour over surveys and feedback to see what has worked in the past. They also look at attendance numbers to see where the interest was. Then, based on all of the above (and more than one discussion with more than one committee), they build the schedule for the event or the chapter year or whatever unit of training they have been assigned.

What is the result? Well, very often it is more of the same. The planners use past success, internal auditors share idea of things they have seen before, and everyone feels trepidation about trying anything new and different in fear of the wrath of leadership, membership, and the budget committee.

As an example, let me pick on fraud. (I do this with the realization that I have been involved in a lot of fraud work, have attended a lot of fraud sessions, and will continue to research and attend sessions in the future.) It is a common joke when chapters are planning the upcoming year — "Let's be sure and have a session on fraud; that always brings them in." Okay, it isn't a joke. They are completely serious when they say this. But I have heard it so often I laugh because, no matter what the actual content of the presentation, if the title includes "Fraud," then people will flock to the session like marks to a Ponzi scheme.

"Fraud and the Internet," "The Top Ten Frauds to Fear ," "Potential Fraud in Purchasing," "Fraud and the Single Auditor," "There Might be Fraud in Your Dresser Drawer," "Fraudsters and the Fraudulent Fraudulents who Fraudit Them." 

I'll bet you dollars to deficiencies that, if you put any of those titles on a chapter schedule, no matter how ludicrous that title, it will be one of the most highly attended sessions for the year.

Why are auditors attracted to the word "fraud"? Such presentations are interesting, they tend to have (what seems to be) practical information, and people leave feeling they have gained something for their time investment. It doesn't matter if the subject matter has nothing to do with the operations the auditor looks at, it doesn't matter if the presentation is nothing but a bunch of stories, it doesn't matter if it is information the attendees have heard sixteen times in the sixteen prior years the chapter held a presentation on fraud — auditors will attend.

And the chapter, responding to its need to provide the membership what it wants, using the only tools it has (attendance and surveys), and wanting to ensure successful meetings, supplies the content that its membership appears to want.

That preceding story about chapters is just as true at the district, regional, and national levels. Fraud sessions are well attended no matter what the content nor what has happened in the past. And similar stories can be told about such topics as IT, or flavor-of-the-month topics such as the updated COSO framework and (allow me to throw myself under this hurtling bus) social media.

And it is interesting that, when surveys are sent — when the question is asked "what would you like to see in future meetings?" — very few people say "Something new." Instead people respond fraud, IT, and various flavors-of-the-month.

That's why you see the subjects you do. And that is why you don't see very many on seismic change, on creativity, on innovation, on the future of internal audit, on challenging auditors to take the next step, etc. — it just doesn't show up on the various radars that planners have in their arsenals.

What that means is that, if we really want to see discussions of seismic change permeating conferences, if we want chapter presentations on the future of internal audit, if we want seminars that do more than rehash materials we've all seen before, then we have to let the powers that be (the chapter, conference, and national leaders) know we want something more.

Fill out the surveys when you get them. Buttonhole leaders and talk to them about the changing landscape and the need to respond to it. And the toughest one — get involved yourself.

Any of the above is about involvement. It means doing more than ignore the requests for input from local chapters. It means understanding who is involved in driving education for the internal audit population. And (here is the one that probably hurts most) it means getting involved as a volunteer — taking active participation in helping the profession move forward.

David's question was asked within the broader context of the role of leadership in sending the message of a need for change. And of course leadership has that responsibility; that is why leadership contains the word "lead." But it also points to the fact that we all, no matter what our lot or role in life, have the opportunities to lead.  And taking a leadership role within the profession is an excellent way to help drive the profession's direction.

Look, there is a place for fraud and COSO and IT and for every other topic that, when you look closely, you may feel has been overrepresented. We can never forget the foundations. But there is also the need to use every avenue to better understand how we can get to a future where we maintain our relevance. And it does, indeed, mean stepping forward and making sure your voice is heard. Only then can such messages be heard in every meeting, seminar, and conference.

Posted on Feb 26, 2014 by Mike Jacka

Share This Article:    

  1. Mike, thanks for the above insight.  I must confess I've always naively assumed that conference organizers choose presentations on the basis of what's new and challenging, as opposed to what's safe and reassuring. However, since conferences have, to break even (at least) they must provide what the prospective attendees want. I now understand why conference agendas always seem the same and you've made that clear with your example of fraud. (I've never understood why auditors get so excited about fraud. Most organizations run into trouble due to bad decisions made by the board but you never see a presentation on 'Auditing the board's decision making process'. It's not as difficult as it sounds - I've managed such an audit). I must confess that I always went on conferences to see new places and chat to fellow auditors over a good meal but perhaps I'm an exception

  1. David, let me throw in another thought (and a slightly different perspective than I may have given in the post).  The other thing I can say from my involvement is that there is usually some consideration for what is new.  No one goes into planning with the idea that it will be the same old thing.  That is part of the reason the (as I put it) flavors-of-the-month wind up on the agendas; it shows that someone is looking at what is new.  And, as I mentioned, I have been to many conferences where there is at least one general session about changing landscapes and potential impacts on all professions.

    However, I would like to see more that is "new" and challenging.  That doesn't mean that old topics should be abolished, it is just means they have to be presented with content that is new, different, and, above all, practical for the attendees.

    (And, in spite of my rubber chicken title, meals have become much better at these events.)

    Mike

Leave a Reply