By Keith Phillips
Most auditors are in the business of delivering a verdict. They are trained to ask all the right questions, make observations, seek evidence, verify feedback, and then make a judgement call as to whether the client complies. Job done.
But this misses out on a significant role that auditors might play. There are thousands of auditors and assessors within the food supply chain. They come with significant expertise and spend their time visiting farms and factories and accumulate extraordinary experience in the process. There is no greater body of knowledge on the state of food supply on the planet.
But auditors are confined to delivering a verdict rather than advice. They are also using inferior data-harvesting tools. They are leaving on the table knowledge that a world concerned with food safety and sustainable practices cannot do without.
This knowledge is invaluable
The knowledge of the auditor needs to be harvested for two reasons:
- To ensure that there is a continuous and sustainable food supply to feed a growing world population. This means that we need to learn from the best knowledge resources and get more of the world food producers participating in the global food markets.
- To ensure that certification bodies (CBs) thrive in a world of escalating requirement for compliance in response to pandemics and climate change. Auditing as a standalone function will be increasingly commoditized, thereby squeezing margins and compromising the quality of people. To survive, CBs need to deliver added value from the knowledge they are leaving behind to defend margins and open up new revenue streams.
In harvesting this knowledge, auditors need not compromise the integrity of the audit or fall into the taboo land of consulting and advice. What they can do is ensure that the data they are accumulating is packaged so that management, independent consultants, and other stakeholders can benefit from its value and convert it into knowledge and recommendations.
Current IT solutions are failing
Today, the spreadsheet is the tool generally used for audits. Spreadsheets are flexible and handle the complexities of multiple schemes but they have three fundamental flaws when it comes to accumulating and distributing data:
- They are mostly disconnected. Spreadsheets have tended to reside on laptops. Getting data out of one of them to populate other data systems or to aggregate views for cluster analysis and benchmarking is problematic. Getting data to flow from the farm to the scheme owner can be torturous.
- They require disciplined version control. As new versions of a scheme are released, reliance is placed on the individual to ensure that they are using the right version. This is patchy at best. Worse, as versions change there is little question-number alignment. This means that data from one version may not be easily compared with data from another. Trend analysis for continuous improvement, for example, becomes impossible.
- They lead to data error. Reports claim that as many as 90 percent of spreadsheets have errors in them. This comes from typos; mistakes in formatting, formulas, and field names; and/or data-entry errors. When you are reliant on copy-and-paste or manual entry of data from one system to another, these errors can compound. As an example, let’s say that a CB uses a spreadsheet or the organization’s CRM to gather initial client information. This is then copied into a spreadsheet for the particular scheme for the auditor to fill in. That audit is then copied into the scheme owner’s system. This may be an iterative process as clarification and verification is sought.
The auditor as a knowledge harvester
If auditors are to become knowledge workers, they should be using state-of-the-art knowledge-working tools. These would comply to the following four principles:
- There should be one version of the truth on the cloud, available for any authorized participant and managed by an appropriate authority.
- There should be seamless one-touch data flow in which the producer inputs their information before the auditor and reviewer add to it; this one version of the truth is then sent seamlessly onto the scheme owner and regulator as required.
- The data should be captured in a relational database, which enables analysis across clusters or up and down value chains and trends over time.
- Modern tools of knowledge-capture should be used; these would include tablets, smartphones, and augmented reality headsets, digital cameras, voice input, and videoconferencing.
Most importantly, the auditor needs the confidence and skills to use these tools appropriately. Here again online learning and simulation tools can provide accelerated skills development and experience.
An interconnected future
More than anything else, the change that is enabling knowledge harvesting is that we are becoming networked. Producers, consultants, inspectors, auditors, regulators, scheme owners, and buyers can all be connected on one system, participating as appropriate and authorized:
- Producers should be able to register online, conduct self- and pre-assessments, provide evidence, and give viewpoints online. They should then be able to get the appropriate feedback from reports, benchmarking, and continuous improvement dashboards.
- Authorized consultants and auditors should be able to review the producer’s inputs and build on this in their auditing processes. Knowledge of quality and compliance will be obtained from multiple data sources by tapping into enterprise systems and new measurement technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT).
- Assessment scores and evidence of performance should automatically flow to scheme owners, regulators, and buyers as requested.
- All of this valuable information should be processed and available to the knowledge workers in the system who are responsible for improving the performance. They can then ensure sustainability and protecting consumers from risk, both for individual producers as well as whole supply chains and regional clusters.
Any system that is not connected, that requires manual data transfer, where data is stored in isolated islands of spreadsheets—will die.
Join the conversation at Exemplar Global’s Food Safety Expo
In the process of doing audits, the auditor has gathered the data that can be converted into knowledge, useful to consultants, managers, scheme owners, brand owners, and the producers themselves. If only it can be easily harvested.
The digital database of knowledge now provides a value that can change the role of the auditor from providing a commodity to providing strategic services, and thereby becoming a knowledge partner of your clients.
If you want to join the conversation about this topic, I ask you to register for Exemplar Global’s Food Safety Expo. At the Expo, we will be having a special live panel discussion on March 16th. You’ll have the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of many of the thought leaders who have made it through the digital transition in auditing.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
About the author
Keith Phillips is the CEO and president of Quantum Leap Beyond Spreadsheets (QLBS).