While significant progress has been made in both technology and processes to establish best practices in audit management, a common pitfall remains for many organizations: disparate silos of information and business processes. These different workflows contribute to a new type of business risk -- the audit performance gap. this term refers to the strategic value lost due to inefficiency in the audit management process.

Fortunately, addressing this emerging issue doesn't have to be overwhelming. By moving from common practices to best practices, auditors can effectively minimize the audit performance gap and maximize their organizational value.

• Best Practice No. 1: Integrate working papers documentation into the audit management process. Working papers have a direct correlation to audit performance and can provide valuable intelligence to other audit functions, from overall audit management and team collaboration, to audit analytics and risk assessment. Unfortunately, most organizations do not take a methodical approach to creating and organizing audit documentation. Use of shared drives is the most common practice, requiring piecing parts of the Microsoft Office suite together.

A best practice is to implement a fully automated working papers solution that links documentation into overall project management. This not only delivers audit intelligence, but also drives value by providing a framework for productive execution; streamlining fieldwork, documentation and reporting; enabling resource-strapped audit departments to accomplish more than they could by using manual techniques; and facilitating team communication.

• Best Practice No. 2: Adopt a bottom-up audit management approach. Working papers represent the fundamental building blocks of the entire audit management process, as reports, analysis, findings and recommendations all flow from their data. Just as a structurally sound house must begin with a strong foundation, so too must an efficient audit management system. Frequently, however, companies employ a top-down approach whereby audit teams tailor working papers to fit a very specific output or a specialized report. As a result, working papers become over-customized and have very little utility outside of the very narrow purpose for which they were designed. As the number and types of outputs increase, many audit teams find themselves continually customizing their working papers to meet new demands. It's a vicious circle of inefficiency.

A best practice is to choose a management tool that is relatively simple and standardized, and that balances flexibility with structure. This is why purpose-built audit management solutions are the best option. These solutions are designed from the ground up specifically for audit, have built-in validation processes to streamline workflow, reduce the risk of errors, and let auditors focus on what's important: providing oversight and value.

• Best Practice No. 3: Redirect resources to strategic audit activities. As time benefits are realized from integrating working papers documentation (favoring convention over configuration), it is critical to leverage those gains. Too often, audit departments think of new efficiencies as the end result, rather than an interim step. A clever audit executive understands that a productivity increase presents a rare opportunity to increase the audit department's organizational value.

A best practice is to redirect the recouped resources to more strategic audit activities such as enhancing audit analysis techniques, conducting additional audits, evaluating additional organizational risks, or training and up-skilling audit staff. In addition, audit departments can improve risk assessments, reduce redundancies or inaccuracies, and broaden the scope of assurance activities -- all critical attributes that add greater value to the organization. The unexpected value driven by redirected administrative time will solidify the role of internal audit (or other audit teams) as trusted business advisors to the audit committee as well as the chief executive officer, the chief financial officer, and other members of management team.

Increasingly, organizations are recognizing the important role that effective audit management plays in solidifying audit as a vital strategic function to the management team. As audit technology and analytics capabilities develop, audit departments must adopt the best practices that will unleash their power and deliver on the promise of deep and seamless integration between audit project management and advanced audit analytics for high-impact, high-performance auditing, and finally make the audit performance gap a problem of the past.

Dan Zitting, CPA.CITP, CISA, is vice president of working papers software at ACL Services.

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