Published: 4 May 2020

Over the past two decades, as technology has evolved, so too has the certification industry. Laura Fletcher, Commercial and Customer Experience Director at NQA, explores the recent changes to auditing following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gone are the days of the man in a white jacket with a clipboard and tick sheet, providing a pass or fail outcome. Instead we see a diverse community of professionals working to continuously deliver improvement value while striving to enhance the end user’s experience.

With laptops, phones and the occasional camera at the ready, the certification industry is engaged with the world and embracing technology – or so we all thought.

The digitisation of business processes, systems and documentation has been a continuous theme over the last 20 years. In 2008, following the publication of ISO 9001:2015 – Quality management systems, many organisations used the new standard to bring their business forward by embracing computers and, as a result, moved their age old quality procedures and files to electronic quality management systems.

This was a much needed improvement that enabled the industry to amend, tweak and fine tune procedures on a regular basis, facilitating more dynamic continuous improvement. Throughout this, the world of certification retained its reliance on face to face auditing.

Then along came Covid-19. The disruptor the world didn’t anticipate, and yet, the driver for the radical change the certification industry desperately needed.

Over a decade later, in 2019, while judging the Emerging Talent category at the International Quality Awards, the CQI heard from a young apprentice about her quality journey in the nuclear industry.

Her passion and enthusiasm for driving the industry forward didn’t just stem from a journey of continuous improvement, but a passion for an exciting career in quality and a desire to use technology to its full advantage.

There wasn’t a judge on the panel who didn’t have their eyes opened by her attitude and experience of driving her industry forward through the use of technology.

Then along came Covid-19. The disruptor the world didn’t anticipate, and yet, the driver for the radical change the certification industry desperately needed.

Survival mode

A certification body’s willingness to survive is its greatest motivator for change. Within two weeks the certification industry moved from being sceptical of remote audits, to being almost 100 per cent dependent on them.

With government restrictions in place, the business continuity plans of certification bodies were dusted off and reimagined. Certification bodies had to adapt to a new, virtual world and retain long-distance relationships with clients. It’s fair to say that no matter how complex a business continuity plan or management system was, it did not fully cover the circumstances the world was thrown into.

Certification bodies have had to not only change their outlook and strategy, but their business models, operational processes, communications and marketing plans, in order to support clients and reassure them of the effectiveness of a remote audit. On occasions this even happened in advance of advice or guidance from regulatory bodies, which for risk averse organisations was a very conscious and delicate decision.

Even though we are just over a month into this new paradigm, it is safe to say that the most interesting insights are the reactions from the industry.

Positively, we have seen great work from the Association of British Certification Bodies and the Federation of Certification Bodies to bring the industry together during a period of great uncertainty and plot a common route forward.

The situation brought with it a sense of unity across the UK’s certification industry and a sense of working together to ensure a continuity of service while supporting clients, staff and industry throughout an uncertain time.

Each certification body has had to rapidly complete its journey to embrace technology and empower staff to become more creative with their methods of reviewing the effectiveness of management systems. All of this has been done while maintaining a sense of calmness, experience and professionalism throughout.

Even though we are just over a month into this new paradigm, it is safe to say that the most interesting insights are the reactions from the industry. Quality managers who are used to hours of preparation prior to an external audit are claiming a remote audit to be less stressful. Consultants who regularly reassure and support clients through change and audits are still able to do so albeit from a distance.

Assessors who walk shop floors looking for best practices and risk mitigation are empowered by how much technology is enabling them in their daily roles. Each of these three core stakeholders are invested in the value of the external audit. Each has been thrown into an unknown world of reliance on technology. The benefits of a remote audit are clearly playing out. Better work-life balances, audits more focused on key elements, less stressful experiences, greater access to expertise and reduced CO2 levels.

Managing expectations

We must, however, view the positives of remote auditing in a balanced way – through the lens of value. Certification is about providing value to different stakeholders. From a customer having confidence in a good product delivered on time, to staff working safely in the workplace. While a significant amount of this value can be assured remotely, this is not the case in all circumstances. For example, it will be hard to see how an effective health and safety audit can be undertaken devoid of attending a client’s location. A further technological jump is certainly needed here.

For now, it is too early to tell if remote auditing fully delivers equivalent outcomes to on-site assessments. What we do know is that undertaking a remote audit provides better outcomes than no audit at all. We also know that although remote auditing will probably not completely replace on-site assessments in the future, it is likely to form a greater part of the certification experience moving forward.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has been a true test of business continuity and it may also be here to stay. As with all change, our industry will have to continue to move forward and adapt to ensure the safety of our colleagues, the continuous improvement of end user experience and certification outcomes.

There is a global desire that the radical change brought about by Covid-19 will help organisations focus their energies on achieving a more eco-friendly and sustainable way of doing business.

Though importance should be placed on conducting on-site audits, an equal sense of importance should be placed on the continuous safety and wellbeing of ourselves and our planet. Technology is the key facilitator in allowing all this to happen. Perhaps Covid-19 brought the future of our industry just that little bit closer.