Management system certification remote auditing: too remote?

Will remote auditing continue beyond the Covid-19 pandemic? Looks like it might be here to stay.

The traditional and somewhat mandatory approach to on-site auditing for management system certification seems to have been put to the test during the global pandemic (Covid-19) and the associated restrictions on social distancing and international travel, etc. Like most industries, the certification sector has looked at how it can maintain its services without reducing quality and integrity. Actually ‘remote auditing’ is not new to the management system certification process and in justified circumstances it was allowed way before the pandemic hit the world.

Of course, technology in the modern era plays a huge part in allowing remote auditing techniques to substitute some of the traditional ‘on-site audit’. With online streaming using a variety of ‘apps’ we can virtually move around buildings, interview people, share (view and even edit) documents without being there. The likes of Zoom, MS Teams have certainly been put to the test in many respects during these challenging times.

So should we expect the future of management system certification audits to be completed totally remotely? I don’t think so! But there is an opportunity to explore which parts of the audit can be effectively completed without traipsing across the country or even the globe. Some call this the ‘tea and biscuits’ part of the audit – normally those parts spent sat in the meeting room looking at documents and records (probably on a computer screen). It seems that these parts of the audit could be effectively completed using the aforementioned technological solutions.

Market confidence in the management system certification audit process is critical and moving forward we must ensure that the audit process is effective. On this basis we must ensure that critical parts of an audit which relate to operational activities and controls are effectively observed by the auditor. The certification industry needs to ask itself if what is seen on a screen is a true resemblance of the reality at the site? What is not visible that would normally be in view during a site visit? What about body language and the way people are interacting with each other? What about cultural indications in how people react and say things during audits? In fact, do people act differently when they are being broadcast to third parties as opposed to talking to a person stood in front of them at the site? The point is, would an auditor notice things during a live video stream in the same way as physically walking around a site? This level of integrity should not be compromised!

Apart from the health and safety benefits of a more remote approach, there is also some secondary benefits to consider such as reductions in international travel, increased flexibility in resource planning, cost reductions. With an estimated >20m international flight miles (certification personnel in the UK alone) flown every year, any marginal reduction will realise the benefits on the certification industry.

It therefore seems to make sense that the industry considers a range of auditing techniques to achieve effective and complete management system audits. The Federation of Certification Bodies is collaborating with key stakeholders to the certification industry to consider the pros and cons of a ‘blended’ style audit approach and is expected to publish the results during the Autumn of 2020.