Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Will auditors go the way of horses?

In late 2015, MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew Mcafee penned an article entitled, will "Humans go the way of horse labour?"

The article explores how the mechanization of farm labour serves as a model of exploring the automation of knowledge work citing the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief. They state:

"In 1983, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief brought the debate into sharp relief through a clever comparison of humans and horses. For many decades, horse labor appeared impervious to technological change. Even as the telegraph supplanted the Pony Express and railroads replaced the stagecoach and the Conestoga wagon, the U.S. equine population grew seemingly without end, increasing sixfold between 1840 and 1900 to more than 21 million horses and mules. The animals were vital not only on farms but also in the country’s rapidly growing urban centers.

But then, with the introduction and spread of the internal combustion engine, the trend rapidly reversed. As engines found their way into automobiles in the city and tractors in the countryside, horses became largely irrelevant. By 1960, the U.S. counted just 3 million horses, a decline of nearly 88 percent in just over half a century. If there had been a debate in the early 1900s about the fate of the horse in the face of new industrial technologies, someone might have formulated a “lump of equine labor fallacy,” based on the animal’s resilience up till then. But the fallacy itself would soon be proved false: Once the right technology came along, most horses were doomed as labor."

The MIT Professors are not alone in sounding the alarm when it comes to how automation can impact labour. Others includes Thomas Piketty, Douglas Rushkoff, Martin Ford and Nick Carr. 

If the techno-distopians are right, then there will need to be a fundamental alteration of the way the economic system is structured to address the unemployed masses. Such masses are not likely going to take such things lying down. For example, in response to the Great Depression there were mass demonstrations in Washington DC where thousands protested their plight. In January 1932, Cox's Army of 25,000 assembled in the capital to protest their poverty. Later that year, the Bonus Army of 43,000 marched on Washington in the summer to demand the US government pay the bonus promised early:

Alternatively, if the techno-utopians are right, such as Peter Diamandis and others at Singularity university, then such  protests won't be necessary: the system will make changes proactively to ensure that the gains made from exponential technologies are made available to the majority.

The point is that either way actions must occur at the political level to make the changes necessary to  address the deeply embedded economic architecture.

Consequently, working within the status quo leads to one actionable option: "Race with the Machine".

Prior to penning the article I cited above, MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson And Andrew Mcafee proposed that the path forward requires "man and machine" to work together:

This is essentially how IBM's cognitive system, Watson, was positioned when it comes to doctors and medicine: doctors delegate the task treatment research to Watson, while they determine what is the right treatment for their cancer patients. For example, doctors and Watson were able to work together and determine what the correct treatment was for a 60 year old Japanese patient

How can this be applied to financial audit? 

Firstly, the scope of the audit is driven by optimizing the cost-benefit curve. Consequently, there is a potential to get greater assurance for the same amount of resources allocated. Keep in mind that if auditors had to audit all transactions,  the organization could go bankrupt just trying pay the audit bill. Consequently, auditors only look at transaction on a test basis.

However, with the increased datafication of an organization's interactions with stakeholders, there is an opportunity - that didn't previously exist - to analyze these interactions for audit insights.

Take for example a Business to Consumer (B2C) company, like Dell, that interacts with its customers via social media. In 2005, there was an infamous spat between a CUNY journalism professor, Jeff Jarvis, and Dell computers (original post here). Jarvis was irate over the customer service and has been an Apple customer since. Such conversations can be mined for potential audit implications. In this particular instance, it could be a means to assess the adequacy of the sales returns allowance - developing a model based on how many other customers have complained via blogs, twitter or other social media about the B2C company and then assessing whether the provision is adequate.

Previously, such an analysis would be cost prohibitive and wouldn't make sense for the auditor to even considering such a thing. For example, the B2C company would need to record all conversations and then have auditor listen to thousands of hours of conversations to see whether such an issue actually exists.

This is not to say that it is currently feasible to run such an analysis.  Tools that aggregate, standardize and analyze such unstructured text could be argued to be in their infancy. However, datafication combined with further advances in social analytic tools (see video below for an example) in is the first step to a world where such analysis could be feasible.

The second separate but related issue is the role of the regulators in opening or closing the gate on innovation.

Some may mistakenly believe that this due to the regulated nature of audit. However, audit is not the only arena where innovation is shaped by the “regulator”. In fact, the success or failure of innovation  depends on how the incumbents who govern the landscape make way for the new technology (or not).

Take for example the rise of the iPhone in the corporate environment. What allowed consumerization to take place (i.e. allowing users to connect their favourite smartphone devices to the network instead of the corporate devices) was that Microsoft took an open approach to licensing it Exchange Active Sync. They could have created a walled garden that allowed Windows Phone only to connect to their email server, however, they paved the way for iPhone and Android to connect their devices to the corporate email server. Microsoft as the "regulator" of which mobile device can connect to its mail server enabled the iPhone and Android to displace our beloved BlackBerries from the corporate environment. Had Microsoft saw more profit in walling off the market for its own devices the ability for Apple iDevice to disrupt corporate IT would have been stifled if not suffocated.

On the opposite side, David Sarnoff of RCA squashed FM radio in order to protect his AM Radio technology and pave the way for television. The inventor, Edwin Armstrong, who initially was Sarnoff's friend, had mistakenly shared his technological innovations with him only to be betrayed by him. FM Radio technology had the potential to share data, such as faxes, back in the 1930s. One can only imagine the state of the wireless technology had RCA allowed this technology to flourish. 

Similarly, in 1934, AT&T blocked the answering machine for fear that it would undermine their business because "ability to record voice would cause business people to shun the telephone for fear of having their conversations recorded". So although much innovation came out of AT&T's Bell labs, the point is that it was effectively acting as the "regulator" which determined which innovations were permitted in the telecommunications industry and which ones were not. 

Consequently, the regulators (e.g. SEC, PCAOB, AICPA, etc.) will have a significant role to play on how innovation will unfold with the arena of audit. It is ultimately they who are going to weigh and assess what constitutes reasonable assurance actually is.  

Where are the regulators currently at? 

Well it seems that they are looking to technology to actually improve audit quality. In a May 2017 speech, PCAOB Board Member Jeanette M. Franzel noted in the section "Impact of Technology on Audit" that:

"If managed and implemented properly, these developments have the potential to enhance the value of the audit process and increase audit quality." [emphasis added]

To be sure it's not all rainbows and unicorns. Board Member Franzel did see "potentially disruptive changes will present challenges and threats across the auditing profession". However, at least there is an appetite to explore how such technologies can improve audit quality, expand what more can be done within audits and enable auditors to race with the machine.

Author: Malik Datardina, CPA, CA, CISA. Malik works at Auvenir as a GRC Strategist that is working to transform the way we do financial audits. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent UWCISA, UW, Auvenir, Deloitte's or anyone else.