Despite this call to action, overcoming short-termism remains a stark challenge for many companies. In fact, as the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) 2015 Blue Ribbon Commission observed, “factors encouraging a short-term focus are stronger now than ever before.” Additionally, in a 2015 report, the Conference Board contemplated whether short-term biases might jeopardize future business prosperity altogether.
Yet if short-termism is a sizable challenge, so too is the commitment to understanding why short-termism is so entrenched as a business practice and the task of mitigating its harmful effects. In July, the Anti-Fraud Collaboration, a group of organizations focused on fighting financial reporting fraud, hosted a webcast on Coming to Terms with Short-Termism. The discussion, which I was privileged to moderate, featured top experts and generated a wealth of useful takeaways for participants across the financial reporting supply chain.
Let’s look at a few key takeaways from the discussion.
1. Acknowledge and Define the Complexities of the Issue
To address the challenge of short-termism, it helps to understand the complexities of what companies are up against. For one thing, “short-termism” doesn’t equate to short-term activity, which isn’t necessarily bad. NACD Chair Karen Horn, director of Simon Property Group, observed at the outset of the webcast that the “long term is made up of many, many short-term actions.”
Another tricky step to understanding the complexities of short-termism is how to define “short-term” at your company. Is it a month? A quarter? A year? “It depends on the company,” said panelist Bill McCracken, president of Executive Consulting Group LLC. McCracken, who previously served as CEO of CA Technologies, added that even within a company the meaning of “short-term” can change according to different contexts, such as strategy or compensation.
2. Think Strategically
However complex a challenge combatting short-termism may seem, there are several simple solutions for directors to consider. One of them is this: think strategically. A strategic mindset helps short-term actions align with long-term goals. “Boards really need to be conversant with the company strategy,” said Horn. McCracken agreed, noting that board members should become “activist directors” who immerse themselves in the details of the company, its strategy, and its industry. This engaged approach, he added, can help directors be prepared to handle situations such as share buybacks or changes to dividend policy where questions of short-termism may arise.
Similarly, strategic thinking can also help directors gauge the validity of the use of non-GAAP measures. “Shouldn’t the use of non-GAAP measures also tie in to the strategy of the entity?” asked Douglas Chia, executive director of the Conference Board’s Governance Center. “Absolutely,” responded fellow panelist and KPMG Partner Jose Rodriguez.
3. Strengthen Tone at the Top…
One danger of short-termism is that it can heighten fraud risk across the enterprise. Companies need to ensure that management is setting the right tone at the top. “I can’t underemphasize tone at the top,” said Rodriquez. “How do [senior executives] talk to employees? Is everything geared around meeting that analyst’s [earnings] expectations?” From his auditor’s viewpoint, he added, “that would be concerning.
4. …But Don’t Forget the “Mood in the Middle” and “Buzz at the Bottom”
While emphasizing tone at the top, panelists also stressed that short-termism shouldn’t be a point of concern for only senior management. Many instances of fraud, noted Rodriguez, occur outside the C-suite. “It’s middle management and lower management that had to get that sales number to a certain amount of dollars,” he said, and this pressure can lead to channel stuffing or other undesirable activity. Such activity is what audit committees, auditors, and the board ought to be looking for, added Bill McCracken.
5. Dial Down the Emphasis on Quarterly Results
“Our entire [financial reporting] structure is built around quarterly reporting,” said McCracken. While eliminating this quarterly focus might not be possible—or even desirable—panelists agreed that reducing the quarter-to-quarter mindset was an important part of addressing short-termism. “Obviously you can’t get entirely away from that,” said Chia, “but there are ways you can reduce the emphasis and build on the timeline that you think is appropriate—not what you’re being told by the analyst community.”
Fostering robust communication internal and external communication is a core priority for the Anti-Fraud Collaboration, and communication at all levels was a recurring theme throughout this webcast. When discussing the use of non-GAAP measures, Horn noted that “the chairman of the compensation committee should be talking to the chairman of the audit committee as these measures work their way in to [compensation] programs.”
Likewise, communicating effectively with external investors and other stakeholder parties is critical. “Boards need to really understand investor communications,” said Horn. “The way that we can pursue long-term value creation is in partnership with our investors.”
Recently, the world’s largest ongoing study of the internal audit profession—the Global Internal Audit Common Body of Knowledge (CBOK)—was completed by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and Protiviti to ascertain expectations from key stakeholders regarding internal audit performance at organizations of varying operational models and sizes. The study sought input from members of audit committees all over the world about their expectations of the internal auditor’s role in the organization. We think all directors will find the results of the study applicable to their work in the coming year and beyond.
Below are six imperatives for internal auditors from the CBOK study based on feedback from audit committee members.
1. Focus more on strategic risks. According to the CBOK study, two out of three board members believe internal audit should have a more active role in evaluating the organization’s strategic risks. Study respondents indicated that internal audit should focus on strategic risks (as well as operational, financial and compliance risks) during audit projects (86 percent) and periodically evaluate and communicate key risks to the board and executive management (76 percent). Accordingly, chief audit executives (CAE) must focus their function sufficiently on the bigger picture to think more strategically when evaluating risks, proposing risk-based audit plans, and formulating audit findings. By understanding the organization’s business objectives and strategy, and identifying risks that create barriers to the organization achieving its objectives and executing its strategy successfully, the CAE increases internal audit’s value proposition.
2. Think beyond the scope. The call for internal auditors to think strategically leads to another challenge: thinking beyond the scope of the audit plan. Thinking beyond scope means, for example, that the auditor should:
“Connect the dots” when considering enterprisewide implications of the findings of multiple audits, particularly findings with significant business model underpinnings;
Broaden the focus on operations, compliance, and nonfinancial reporting issues; and
Watch for patterns or signs indicating a deteriorating risk culture.
By focusing more broadly on the implications of audit findings, and thinking beyond the expressed or implied boundaries set by the audit plan, internal audit is better positioned to deliver stronger, more practical, and harder-hitting recommendations aligned with what directors are seeking.
3. Add more value through consulting. In today’s era of slower economic growth, a high premium is placed on operational effectiveness and efficiency. The CBOK study respondents picked up on this point, as 73 percent of respondents recommended that internal audit advise on business process improvements. For example, consulting activities by internal audit can result in: strengthening of the lines of defense that make risk management work; more effective collaboration with other independent functions focused on managing risk and compliance; improvements in the control structure, including greater use of automated controls; and suggestions for improving and streamlining compliance. These study findings underscore the benefit of investing in consulting services that will strengthen business processes.
4. Facilitate effective, high-quality communication. Board members generally rate internal audit’s communication at a high level of confidence. For example, a large majority of directors give high scores for the quality (83 percent) and frequency (81 percent) of internal audit’s communication. That’s good news and a great foundation on which to build the board’s satisfaction with the internal auditor’s role.
5. Elevate stature and perspective. Intentionally positioning the CAE and internal audit within the organization is vitally important to their ability to meet elevated expectations. Access and perspective have always been keys to positioning. Access has typically been attained through direct reporting to the audit committee, as well as to the C-suite. But beyond these reporting lines, the study reports that two out of three board members rank the CAE’s participation in board settings beyond the traditional audit committee meetings as an effective strategy for broadening the CAE’s perspective. The board settings that are relevant in this context must be defined by directors to fit the organization’s specific needs. However the goal is defined, increased access to and more frequent interaction with the board broadens the CAE’s perspective of the organization and elevates the stature and visibility of the internal audit function within it. It also enables the CAE to establish relationships with directors, understand their views on addressing competing audit priorities, and earn the right to be viewed as a valued source of insight for the board.
6. Align with stakeholder expectations. In most organizations, not all stakeholders see eye to eye or want the same value from internal audit. This reality creates a significant challenge for CAEs tasked with building consensus among stakeholders. While directors may not expect their company’s CAE to address all of the above imperatives, they should initially and periodically assess whether internal audit is doing what matters based on previously-established imperatives. The CAE bears the brunt of the responsibility for addressing this challenge by articulating the value that a top-down, risk-based audit plan contributes to each facet of the organization, and by providing an assurance and advisory perspective that the board, executive management, and other stakeholders can understand.
Following are some suggested questions that directors may consider based on the risks inherent in the entity’s operations.
Does the board periodically evaluate the scope of internal audit’s activities and discuss whether modifications are needed in view of changes in company operations and the business environment? Is the board getting the insights it needs?
Does internal audit provide adequate attention to strategic risk issues, including barriers to the organization’s execution of the strategy?
Does internal audit have an appropriate mix of consulting and assurance activities?
Does internal audit have the stature and access necessary to maximize its effectiveness?
Jim DeLoach is managing director with Protiviti, a global consulting firm.
According to a study by Ocean Tomo LLC, Intellectual Property (IP) accounts for as much as 84 percent of the market value of S&P 500 companies. With so much value at stake, companies often look to an IP audit to inform corporate directors, executives, and legal counsel about the status of the company’s IP and to educate these decision makers on strategies to improve protection, maintenance, and enforcement efforts against infringers.
Let’s examine what’s involved in an IP audit and how one could strengthen the governance of your enterprise.
What Is an IP Audit?
The two most common types of IP audits are an IP inventory audit and a comprehensive IP audit. The purpose of an IP inventory audit is to identify the IP assets of a company: patents, trademarks, copyrightable works, and trade secrets. The resulting list of assets is crucial because it may reveal IP that is outdated, underutilized, or that no longer has value. Companies may undergo an IP inventory audit prior to a merger or other corporate transaction, or simply when leadership wants an updated IP status report.
The comprehensive IP audit begins with the compilation of IP assets, but the real purpose is to review and analyze how the company utilizes its IP. Effective IP management requires careful attention to protecting, maintaining, and enforcing IP, and the comprehensive IP audit can be a powerful tool in this regard.
IP protection involves securing rights, and how this is done depends on the type of IP.
• Trademark protection derives from use in the marketplace, and those rights can be enhanced upon registration at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).
• Copyright protection exists when an original work of expression is fixed in a tangible form, e.g., a contemporaneous speech is not protected but an audio recording of it is. Similar to trademarks, copyright protection can be enhanced through government registration (via the U.S. Copyright Office).
• Patent rights exist only upon registration with the PTO.
• Trade secret protection exists once the company has taken reasonable measures to safeguard the secrecy of information that gives it economic advantage, such as the formula to Coca-Cola.
The comprehensive IP audit can reveal gaps in protection and candidates for enhanced protection (e.g., trademarks or copyrightable works that the company uses but has not registered with the PTO or the U.S. Copyright Office). Also, if the company holds valuable trade secrets, the comprehensive IP audit helps determine whether the company has closely guarded them via employee nondisclosure agreements or other internal protocols.
The comprehensive IP audit will also reveal whether the company is meeting its periodic registration renewal deadlines, or, more formally, performing sound IP maintenance practices. It should also reveal whether the company is using its IP consistently and correctly (e.g., using a trademark as an adjective to describe a product or service rather than using it as the product name itself). In the case of trade secrets, the comprehensive IP audit should cover whether the company continues to adhere to whatever confidentiality protocols it used to establish trade secret protection in the first place.
A comprehensive IP audit can also help guide IP enforcement efforts. Effective IP enforcement includes policing against misuse and infringements and taking appropriate measures to stop violations.
A Comprehensive Report to Guide the Future
The comprehensive IP audit results in a written report that accompanies the list of IP. A good report will contain best practices and advice on ways the company can enhance, strengthen, and better protect the IP. This report acts as a roadmap for an effective long-term IP management strategy, and it can help the company proactively get in front of issues, implement changes in its IP policies and procedures, prioritize the company’s IP needs, and, importantly, budget for all of the above. This makes IP management more cost effective in the long term rather than waiting to put out fires when issues inevitably arise, and it is a positive risk management practice for boards to add to their oversight duties.
The written report can also provide insight into potential liabilities caused by the company’s current practices. Liability can occur for several reasons. For instance, a company can be held liable if it uses another’s IP without permission or beyond what may be permitted in a license agreement. Another common scenario that exposes a company to liability is if the company is not properly protecting itself when it allows users to post content to the company’s website. The audit report can highlight these issues and offer recommendations to curb and correct these behaviors.
Any time is a good time for a company to conduct an IP audit, especially if one has never been conducted or especially if new leadership has taken over and new strategies are being implemented. Preparing for an initial public offering, undergoing a merger or acquisition, or implementing a corporate restructuring are all prime situations that warrant an IP audit. An IP audit is a prudent next step in making sure that the company is doing everything it can to protect its valuable assets.
Adam W. Sikich, Esq. is senior counsel at Dunner Law PLLC in Washington, DC. Sikich specializes in all aspects of counseling in the areas of trademark, copyright, trade secrets, and licensing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.