April Gunn

Do-It-Yourself Data

Six best practice tips on how you can make a little data go a long way.

July 18, 2011
by April Gunn, CPA, CISA

More and more data is available every day in the world. But are we using that data to its fullest extent? How much better would our audits be if we started using just a little bit of it?

Almost every company is offering a new data-mining tool. Consultants want to come in and analyze data for you. Others want to get a hold of the data that you have for their own benefit. But what can you gain from investing a little time and starting a Do-It-Yourself analysis shop? For one thing, it is neither hard nor expensive.

Reader Note: Don’t miss April Gunn’s session at the upcoming AICPA E.D.G.E. Conference in New Orleans, LA, August 10-12.

Here are six best practice tips on how you can make a little data go a long way.

  1. Identify your scope/risks.
  2. Pick a topic, any topic, such as one of your major cycles — payroll, charge cards or revenues. Sit down and brainstorm the risks around the topic. Google it. Survey your auditors. Discuss the topic with your client. This is one of the most important parts of the process and time should be spent here. Not all ideas will be used, but you want to be sure to gather everything imaginable and then select your top risks from them.

  3. Inventory current/possible data.
  4. Collect data dictionaries and information about data that you already have, and any potential data you may desire, related to the risks you identified. While doing this, also evaluate the data you have to determine whether there are risks that you may not have considered.

  5. ETL stands for what?
  6. You probably have data in various systems, formats, versions, etc. and so the extraction, transformation and the loading (ETL) of all this data so that it's compatible becomes the toughest part even at the most technology-savvy clients. Have faith that with time you can link any two sets of data together.

    For example, if you want to identify employees receiving vendor-expense payments, you might have the expenses paid in an Oracle-based system and payroll information in Excel spreadsheets. You can always get the Oracle based data exported into a text-delimited format that can then be imported into Excel. The analysis can then happen in Excel. Important to this process is transforming it to be compatible, while keeping the data intact, i.e. if Social Security number is nine digits in one system, then you need to ensure it is nine digits in the other system as well.

  7. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  8. Quality data analytics are developed through a circle of develop, test, refine, test, refine, etc. Depending on where you are in your organization, start with the most basic level. A SAS news article laid out eight levels of analytics, which I will detail in my presentation at the upcoming E.D.G.E conference, but for now, understand analytics are not one-size-fits-all. Start simple and move forward from there. Develop some standard reports that give basic information. Then try ad-hoc reporting to pull a particular piece of information. Take it one step at a time.

  9. Remember there is more than one way to skin a cat!
  10. As nice and wonderful as software and consultants are, when you are faced with a budget, time crunch, or sensitive data concerns, they aren’t always an option. You don’t need a particular tool to implement data analysis. Just plain old Excel offers tons of features most people never use. Or you can combine two tools to accomplish one goal, such as Access to join data together and then Excel to report out the joined data in charts or graphs.

The Main Point?

With fewer staff, quicker deadlines and less money, we all need to consider different approaches to the way we are doing our work. Simple analysis can provide unlimited benefits to both you and your clients. Once your analyses are complete, you will also have a good handle on the extent of audit work that will need to be completed. This will allow you to staff audits ahead of time and save tons of hours of nonessential work. Your audits will be beneficial to your clients, and you can provide them with modern solutions to the real problems they are having.

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April C.V. Gunn, CPA, CISA, is director of Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, in Richmond, VA-based APA.