August 2013

The Mind of Jacka

Skeumorphs and Cowpaths

A key internal audit tool is based on antiquated notions of information management and work sharing.

J. Michael Jacka

Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin often shares ideas and insights that, on their surface, seem the anathema of internal audit. However, his suggestions for kick-starting idea generation are the kind that can help our profession maintain its relevance.

On April 20, for example, he wrote a blog titled “Skeumorphs = Failure.” Okay, I admit it — I had no idea what a skeumorph was either. After some Web research, I learned that a skeumorph is a design element derived from something old that is used for something new. A quick example: the iPad shows images of books; the user clicks on a book and then reads. The image of the book is a skeumorph.

Godin discussed how skeumorphs limit our ability to build something new; by using preconceived notions, we diminish the effectiveness of what we are trying to accomplish. In the example above, using the book as a design element places arbitrary limitations on individuals trying to generate ideas for how iPads can be used by readers.

Let us consider electronic workpapers. My experience with electronic workpapers probably mirrors yours. We ask questions like, “How can we translate our current documents into electronic media?” Remembering we were supposed to use the technology to save time, we ask more questions like, “How can we combine and prefill documents?”

Years later, I look back and wonder what we really accomplished. And I like to ask the same question of other auditors — what benefits have you obtained from electronic workpapers? Usually speed and consistency are cited. Never once have I heard the answer, “We used technology to fundamentally rethink the way we do audits.”

The process reminds me of the 1990s when management author Michael Hammer famously talked about “paving the cowpath” — the idea that finding faster ways to do the same old thing only results in getting bad results faster. Internal audit has successfully paved the workpaper cowpath.

In spite of the work audit departments have put into electronic workpapers, we have ignored the potential that technology can provide. And one of the primary reasons is that the skeumorph of workpaper files continues to be our model. (There is a reason we still call them work “papers.”) Per Godin, our current models diminish the effectiveness of what we are trying to accomplish.

By continuing to use the skeumorph of workpapers, we bind ourselves to a 70-year-old solution — one derived from a physical world rather than a virtual one. And our reliance on this model from the past will continue to stifle our ability to maintain relevance in the 21st century.

I wish I knew what that new model looks like, but I’ve got nothing. So it is up to all of us. To maintain internal audit’s relevance, we must identify new models, develop them, and use them to ensure internal audit is a profession of the future.

J. MICHAEL JACKA, CIA, CPCU, CFE, CPA, is cofounder and chief creative pilot for Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services in Phoenix.

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