Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Gaining Control over Compliance Issues

The pendulum has swung from too few controls towards too many controls in

organizations rushing to meet various regulatory guidelines.

Along the same lines, some control designs have shifted from simple

towards being excessively complex.

These movements are being driven by a lack of understanding of internal

control requirements and a large dose of fear relating to regulatory

compliance. The fact is that all controls put in by IT, or any group for

that matter, must be grounded in an understanding of the risks to the

organization — both within the operating unit, as well as holistically.

Going overboard and putting in excessive controls can actually be

detrimental for a variety of reasons.

To begin with a short review, internal controls are put in place to

create a reasonable assurance that the goals of the organization are

being appropriately pursued within the constraints of company mandates,

regulatory requirements, and so on. Underlying this is the basic premise

that controls exist to manage risk. By definition, to manage the

organization’s risks, you must first understand what risks confront the

organization.

The lack of this rationale is what frustrated many IT people preparing

for Sarbanes-Oxley. They wanted clear guidance that stated, ”Do this and

your problems are solved.” What IT needed to understand, and still do

for that matter, was what risks confronted the organization’s ability to

have timely and accurate financial reporting. Once the risks were

identified, the probability and impact of each risk event should have

been decided and then unacceptable risks mitigated by implementing

controls that lowered the risk’s probability or impact to a level that

was acceptable to senior management, notably the CEO and CFO.

It is very important to note that the goal is not to completely eliminate

a risk. Instead, the goal of any effort to mitigate a given risk should

be to reduce it to an acceptable level in the most cost-effective,

efficient and sustainable manner.

To elaborate, the cost to the organization must be viewed systematically

as the total cost to the entity, not just the purchase cost or the cost

to IT. Shifting costs from one area to another is a misleading case of an

over emphasis on local optimization.

Instead, the overall cost must be considered relative to the amount of

risk reduction achieved. Additionally, the total costs and benefits must

be considered not just at the point of implementation, but over time as

well.

The control can not impact costs, operations and morale so significantly

that it is impossible to follow over the long term unless it is formally

identified as a stop-gap measure only. In those cases, people need to

understand why it is being put in place and that it is for a limited

period only.

Another aspect to consider is the level of complexity that is being added

to the IT environment.

There are always complaints as controls and the related policies and

procedures are added. Those complaints do decrease as the level of

understanding as to why certain controls are needed increases. There is,

however, also a point where the level of controls exceeds the team’s

ability to cope with them and get their job done. When forced between

following controls and getting their job done, the tendency is to get the

job done and/or have the error rate increase. In turn, the overall level

of frustration skyrockets and increased turnover results. That would not

a good situation to be in.

IT management must understand the risks and minimum set of controls

needed to reduce the risks to a level acceptable not only to them, but to

senior management as well. If the resources aren’t available to reduce

the risks to a level that is acceptable given the mitigation options

available, then an awareness campaign needs to be waged for senior

management to understand the situation. If sustainable solutions aren’t

funded, then the result will be risks that they must formally accept.

In order to be successful, IT must communicate the risks and compensating

controls to ensure that the current levels of risk are acceptable. In

cases where the level of risk exceeds acceptable limits and significant

constraints are present, IT must work with senior management to address

the limiting factors.

Conversely, in areas where the level of risk is acceptable, then

additional controls should not be added. In fact, if unnecessary controls

exist, they should be carefully analyzed and removed.

Controls are needed, but moreover, the appropriate level of controls

commensurate with the risks is what IT groups need — no more and no

less.

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