Friday, August 15, 2008

Elements of a Good Assessor

As assessors, there are some crucial elements that you need to incorporate into your style while you are in front of a client; whether it be the way you present yourself, the way you ask questions, or just the way you collect information. All of these issues can affect the quality of the assessment and how smoothly it performs.

The following are just some quick tips to consider as you are doing your assessment, making it as thorough and as painless as possible.

Be friendly but don’t be their friend.

This is one of the most helpful items that I have taken to heart. As an assessor, you want them to feel comfortable and divulge all information that you want from them. If they feel pressured or backed into a corner, you’ll get only short and sweet answers that, depending on the situation, will not get you the information you’re looking for. Try connecting to them at the beginning of the meeting. Ask them how long they have worked at the company and see where the conversation goes from there. Magically a repore starts to develop and the auditor wall will start to crumble.

Others things to bring up: weather, news (NOT politics), and opinions on technology. Also showing a sincere interest in what they do at their job also helps. People love talking about themselves!

‘May I see an example?’ should be your motto.

People can be a great way of gathering information, but the devil is in the details. Always be in a inquisitive nature and develop an uncomfortable feeling about information when you don’t have documentation to support it.

This is especially important when the client states that they are accomplishing the control or having certain processes around it. Not always, but usually you can trust employees to be honest if they are talking about deficiencies within their processes. The concern grows if they are saying that everything is fine and all of there controls are in place and working correctly. This is a clear sign that you need to gather documentation and further information on the status of findings.

If you get into an audit situation this becomes especially important, as everything typically needs some type of paper trail as to confirm the control is functioning and in place.

If they push back, attack!

Honestly, this should be a red flag while assessing personnel. If you think you’re getting resistance, it could be one of two issues. They could feel uncomfortable about the situation OR they could be concealing something. If they are concealing something, you need to dig even more, ask for examples, and confirm the content with others within the auditing scope.

Don't be afraid to as the same question more than once. For example, asking the configuration manager about pushing code into production might reveal that they have a uniform configuration management tool - and that's the only method of getting code there. Though when talking to the software engineer about this topic, they might reveal that they often put code into production in order to test it first.

I assume you know about assumptions!

Your whole job as an assessor is to gather facts and to interpret to the results - no assumptions included. This is still important even if you are familiar with the environment. Personally, I have to watch out for this if I'm involved with follow-up assessment for organizations. It is very easy to fall into presumptive questions if you knew the answer last year. The problem comes that you do not know if their environment has changed within the last year. Also injection your own presumptions into the assessment could bite you in the end.

Try and look at each assessment engagement as a separate issue. Even if you are familiar with the organization, ask the questions to their personnel again and let them answer the questions.

Let them do the talking.

Bottom line – you don’t get any answers when you’re doing the talking. Setup questions that allow them to describe the situation or process. For example, a closed questions sets up the yes/no answer – like “Do you do this within your process?”. Alternatively you need to ask open questions whereas they are forced to describe the situation from their own point of view - “Can you walk me through how you would typically perform this process?"

If it gets into a complicate section, utilize confirmation questions at the end - example "My understanding of the current situation is like this. Am I correct?". You want to make sure that the findings you are putting down are as accurate as you can record.

Don’t report the findings until the end.

I can’t tell you how many times I get after an interview the question of “So how did I do?”. The best strategy is to just say that you need to look at all of the information holistically before bringing out the findings. Let’s take a couple of scenarios.

Scenario 1 - “Mr. Client, you’re great and I see nothing wrong out of this interview.”

Client is happy that they’ve done their job in your eyes. The person then goes to gloat to his boss on the fine work they’ve done. This is until the next day when you discover a gaping hole in their process that wasn’t discovered until you looked at either the documentation or talked with another person involved. Now you have to retract the statement you did, the client has to retract their statement, and there is a bitter feeling in the air.

Scenario 2 - “ Mr. Client – you have some major deficiencies because of the findings I saw in this particular area.”

Now the client could fight back and try and justify their position, why they didn’t do certain controls, or why they think security is a joke! Additionally if you have to go back to the person to gather more information, they are going to be a closed book for information.

Bottom line – save the findings until the end where you can present all of them in an orderly fashion.

Practice good meeting facilitation.

Lastly, you should always practice good meeting facilitation while you’re performing interviews. Some examples are introductions, setting the tone of the meeting, good time management, keeping proper focus on the objective, and closing the meeting. This is important to ensure that all of the necessary information is gathered within the appropriate time frame.

I’ll elaborate on a future blog as to the details of some of the elements to a meeting and what I like to do to open and close a meeting.

Keep in mind that these are all recommendations and general guidelines to an assessment. When the actual work is being performed, you are the general on the ground and no successful battle plan has been followed to the letter and the battle won. Adjust to the changes within the organization and environment and everything will complete successfully!

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