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I think, therefore I audit. I film, therefore I am. (CUV)


The point of this video is discussing what Descartes‘ famous maxim “I think therefore I am” means to me today, whilst driving past the house he grew up in in the village that bears his name in France.

This is actually video number 18 in the French holiday season, but I didn’t number it as I wanted to present it earlier, so later on the French series will jump from 17 to 19.

Oh, Renee!

The phrase “I think therefore I am” always seemed to me to be ridiculous. After all, when people become thoughtless they don’t just stop existing. They exist as they did before. Some even go through life in a thoughtless state. We have no idea to the extent that animals think – some such as bonoboes, whales and elephants may experience thoughts closer to our own than we may expect. Maybe there is thoughtfulness even further away in the cladoscope from mankind than we would even expect. It doesn’t make the more thinking animal more or less existant than the less thinking animal.

So I decided some time ago that another verb was needed rather than “to be” in order to make a more fitting end to this sentence, and I came upon it while teaching audit. I used to, and still do from time to time, train younger folk how to audit businesses, do reviews, due diligences and all manner of accountancy related services for business. I taught that mindless ticking and bashing of documents, without understanding the heart of an entity’s business, its purposes and its systems, would lead to a valueless and proabably flawed audit process, and that the only way to audit properly was to switch the brain on and keep it switched on for the duration of the audit. So I coined the term “I think, therefore I audit” and taught with this motto all around East Europe in the nineteen nineties and still do from time to time now.

The problem is of course, that because the audit profession is dominated by Big Four firms, who know that they cannot make profits on audits by putting people who can think for themselves on jobs, they have made the profession more and more of a box-filling matter so that junior staff, especially first years fresh from university with precious little practical training and little time to have learned how to think about the things they need to look out for, even though they mainly would probably want to, can go in and perform the bulk of an audit. This is not popular with middle tier clients who want some added value from the observations of their auditor which these younger ones are not yet ready to give, and on the contrary frustrate the client with naive questions as it becomes painfully apparent how they are learning on the job, and the middle tier try to field more senior people on work, and this actually costs our firms more, although we are taking generally less because the audits are smaller and the Big Four are erroneously assumed to have more prestige.

Yes. Even after Enron, and all the other Big Four messes. And the middle tier are forced to endure tighter regulation to assure that audits are being done “properly” but this “properly” means being done the way the Big Four instituted and keep on doing – namely mindless box filling. The Big Four lobby the professional bodies and state how things need to look in the way a standardised audit is carried out, and having any actual talent for sniffing out what could be wrong in a company, having any ability to think your own way through to what could be ailing in a company, these things have no premium whatsoever, on the contrary audit has become such a secretarial job over the last ten years that anyone with a spark of imagination is likely to run from the profession screaming.

And this has been done just to maintain the hegemony of the Big Firms and their MO, namely to take hundreds of university students, mainly for one year, and within that first year fail the vast majority of them, and carry forward only a small minority. They select people so that they will work and fail, whereas the middle tier still select people we expect to be a success, even though half of them are not sure if they are doing the right thing for themselves by not going through the Big Four mill.

So the regulators are altogether interest in seeing whether the right formal aspects of quality are included. They ask if there is a book in the firm and whether that book has everything in it that the standards demand, and then they check whether everything is done by the book, which means everything has to be recorded. This reduces the thinking time, as well as chases away the thinking types. Thinking types are not greatly attracted by doing things by a book, ticking them off, with no ability to add anything of their own. Indeed “creative accountant” became a euphemism for a financial fraudster, and the by-product message of this is “if you are creative, either don’t be an accountant, or leave your creativity outside the office”. Little wonder, then, that I have people opening their eyes when I tell them what I do and say “but you’re not boring, though!” Auditors should, in fact, be the most interesting folk alive, as few other professions see the generous and varied slice of life that we do – travelling all over the place understanding the businesses of all manner of sectors of the economy and meeting always different intelligent people as counterparts in the client companies being served. But that isn’t quite what we see. We see people coming to the profession now who frankly are a waste of the beautiful intellectual opportunities the audit profession offers.

So we are left with auditors coming who are supposed to be intelligent people putting up with being taught to follow instructions rather than think for themselves, and all they must do is record that they did x, y and z. This is ticking and bashing with a vengeance. When it comes to the clever bits of audit, likes systems review or analytical review, a good bit of audit work would be like an afternoon’s discussion with the client and if you wrote it all out would fill the best part of a book. So the notes are at best cursory, there’s no budget in the audit for more time to be spent on it.

If we were able to record all the conversations with cameras or sound recorders, we could show precisely what the logical steps where, what was asked and what was replied and the evidence would be perfect. But that would be hard for regulators to review, and moreover would be stressful for the client – a bit like a police interrogation, and I wouldn’t want to put my clients through that, and there could even be a risk that if the material got out it would be a more harmful breach of confidentiality than if a few ticked-off anodyne schedules ever got leaked out by a disgruntled or mentally ill audit assistant. I never knew any such cases by the way and assume they are extremely rare, unlike with government workers who seem these days to think that a week has not been worth its wage unless some briefing or other has not been leaked to some journalist.

But is the emphasis on recording all bad? In a sense it is inevitable, only the means of recording are not perfect. Certainly it is not enough to do something, we have to be able to show what we did and how it was. And how that fit together into an overall opinion about the financial statements of the business.

Well isn’t that a bit like what we are doing on the internet? Whether a blog or a vlog, many people are turning to the technology available to simply record what is going on in their lives.  Historians of the future will be swamped with information about how people in 2011 lived their lives – thousands of times more indelible memories per person locked into cyberspace for an indeterminate period than the paper memoirs of those who lived even one century earlier. And they had photographs, albeit monochrome ones. Go back another hundred years to 1811 and we know what the people of that day looked like only through the good offices of artists. We can probably have almost as good an idea of the way Julius Caesar looked as the way Napoleon looked, although far many more descriptions have been recovered of the appearance of Napoleon and his mannerisms, but technologically the advances on how we can remember Napolean and how we can remember Julius Caesar are not that great, nowhere near as great as the advances between Napoleon and now.

We should not necessarily worry about leaving too much by way of a trail about ourselves. A film on YouTube can be shared with family, friends and even fans if we are lucky enough to develop a fanbase, but it also is something that the person who made the film can easily come back to again and again and keep fresh the mamory of that day.

Since I started filming I can remember clearly all sorts of things that have happened as the occasional recurrence of watching the film again as it comes up because someone comments it or I chance upon it for some other reason, whereas everything that happened to me more than 5 years ago is much more hard to remember. I can’t recall nearly so easily who was there, where exactly it was, what we did, the way the food tasted, what the music was like – even though tastes and smells don’t get recorded as sounds as sights do in film, they do have a way of coming back when you see and hear the time again.

So it’s all very well to have done something, but if you don’t record it, the moment is fleeting. You only can keep it by recording it, and film does that like nothing else. And afterwards, when you watch the recording, it is not like thinking of something that seems only like a dream now – it proves that you did it, it shows what you heard, and if you’re talking it reminds you precisely what you were thinking. It means that you know you have been, and can show everyone, friend, foe or regulator that you have been.

I still think in order to audit. I refuse to stop. I record my thinking as best I can, but I cannot write at the speed of thought.

And (outside of audit) I film, therefore I am.

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