Lauren Berrington: The Girl Who Found ALICE

Lauren Berrington: The Girl Who Found ALICE

In conversation with Lauren Berrington, Chief Audit Executive at The Bidvest Group Limited (“Bidvest”), a South Africa-based diversified industrial and services company. Lauren discusses her career as an auditor and how she got interested in transformative technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).  

Over the last two years, she and her team have launched ALICE, a next-generation digital auditor with cognitive skills and data transformation capabilities. With ALICE, Lauren wanted to bring together her two passions – auditing and transformative technologies. ALICE is built to enable assurance professionals to focus on higher-level tasks that need human intelligence, while ALICE can drive an automated process to ‘Govern, Manage, and Monitor’ businesses. 

By Rohini Subramanian

Lauren Berrington, Chief Audit Executive at The Bidvest Group Limited (Middle – Front Row)

A few months back, right in the middle of the pandemic, we caught up with Lauren Berrington, Chief Audit Executive at The Bidvest Group Limited (“Bidvest”). Bidvest is one of South Africa’s largest conglomerates, with a range of diverse businesses across services, trading, and distribution. Listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the group has significant holdings in over 300 companies.

Lauren Berrington joined Bidvest in May 2012, and her role as Chief Audit Executive was by no means straightforward.  She led the entire group’s decentralized audit function, working with a diverse and experienced team of auditors and risk assurance specialists. It was a critical responsibility covering a range of areas, including IT, financial, compliance and regulatory audits and a data-centric and automated approach to improving the testing of internal controls and business processes in a sustainably scalable and more continuous manner.

The early days of ALICE

One beautiful day in early 2016, Lauren happened to be at the Bidvest Technology Conference. She heard a range of keynote addresses and panel discussions on the potential of AI, data analytics, digital transformation, and automation. She was no stranger to the potential impact that technology could have in the world of auditing. In fact, when she started her career as an auditor at PwC, she was part of the systems and processes group which explored the role of technology in audits.

Lauren knew very well that if there was a “digital auditor” who could support the team, it would assist in doing the assurance role more justice. The most significant purpose and potential she foresaw was how an automated tool could deliver a lot more coverage and tracking of risk and offer profound management oversight. She and her team were very clear that this kind of technology would be an enabler, not a replacement. The role of human intelligence was unquestionable.

2016 was about reflecting on this opportunity. Lauren knew she could use an extra hand – albeit a digital one. Demands on the audit function were ever-increasing. Those charged with governance and management oversight responsibilities require more assurance (more coverage, scope, and scale) from audit functions delivered in a more intelligent, real-time, continuous, automated, and value-adding manner.

How do we do this? Lauren, along with her core team, envisioned creating a digital auditor. For her, technology would act as one more team member. She named her new digital team member, “ALICE.”  Towards the end of 2016, the first piece of code was written.

There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world: and that is an idea whose time has come -Victor Hugo.

She, along with her trusted and talented team, kickstarted building a next-generation AI-powered technology product with the right cognitive models and the ability to process vast amounts of data, both structured and unstructured.

Fast forward to today, ALICE is a fully-fledged digital platform on the Microsoft Azure marketplace. Over the last three years, ALICE has been deployed across various companies and enterprises, including:

  • A leading banking and financial services group
  • A large food services conglomerate
  • A cloud-based robotics company
  • A leading trading and distribution group
  • A digital transformation and technology company

As a Digital Auditor, some of the roles ALICE has played include:

  1. Financial Auditor: Performed financial control procedures over liquidity models for funding multiple payrolls during the COVID-19 lockdown.
  2. IT Auditor: General control procedures to assess the security posture over 300 businesses across multiple geographies and industries.
  3. Compliance Auditor: Executed compliance control procedures to evaluate the proper reporting of transactions against anti-money laundering regulation.
  4. Operational Auditor: Automated control procedures range of financial and IT controls, including journals, payroll, and P2P.

As an AI-based Digital Worker, ALICE has played a multitude of roles, including the following:

  1. Business Manager:Performed data modeling procedures over customer spend, rebates, and discounts to gain real-time business insights into customer behaviors.
  2. Data Scientist: Performed data wrangling and predictive modeling to substantial data assets on fully managed infrastructure.
  3. Inventory Operations Manager: Performed digital operational procedures to assist management in analyzing the consumption of utilities in a laundry plant.

In our discussion, Lauren emphasized the thought process of building ALICE as an enabler as opposed to a replacement of personnel. While there are automation and digitization of operations, the critical focus for the leader has been around how ALICE can genuinely take advantage of human intelligence by freeing up time for higher risk and judgmental challenges confronting assurance professionals. “It augments and optimizes human effort with digital effort,” she says.

Under the Hood: Closer look at ALICE’S Technology

From a technology perspective, there are two critical aspects to consider. One, access to quality data is the key to the entire process. For automated means to work, the tool must be designed to connect with a range of data sources.

The ALICE Connector can take in structured and unstructured data from screen prints, documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, applications, databases, cloud and IoT devices.

In addition to the ALICE connector, data can also be extracted using API connectors, manual uploads, and even RPA bots.

Once the information has been accessed, it needs to be transformed. It is the process of converting data from multiple formats and converting it into a usable, consistent, and auditable format. This data can now feed into The ALICE Lab. 

The next step is about using data science and AI-based models to analyze all this data.

  1. Pre-build audit procedures:This works very well in several different scenarios and is ideal for processes like IT or cybersecurity audits. Once the connectors are deployed, no manual feed is needed. ALICE collects the relevant data and conducts the tests. Companies have found value by implementing pre-built controls because it creates immediate capacity and allows stakeholders to experience the power of ALICE.
  2. Build your own customized digital procedures:Of course, the Platform also enables custom procedures that audit and risk leaders want to automate.
  3. Convert your existing audit procedures onto ALICE:This is an extension of the above feature. If you already have a process, you can migrate it to ALICE to ensure scale, security, and versioning of your procedures and outcomes.

In every case, ALICE allows you to carry out these procedures on a scheduled or continuous basis, based on your preference and nature of the control.

Finally, once the data is processed, business intelligence (“BI”) reports and dashboards are critical for easy analysis.

For ALICE, Microsoft PowerBI is complementary alongside a collection of pre-built ALICE reports, dashboards, and standardized working papers.

However, should you desire, the Platform has APIs that can connect seamlessly with a whole range of automation platforms, BI, and governance, risk and compliance (“GRC”) platforms.

ALICE allows you to generate company level, process level, and even control level insights for a range of stakeholders. It also provides an audit trail of evidence, reviews findings, and analyzes results from tests conducted.

Overall, security and data governance are critical factors, and Lauren emphasizes the importance this has been given. “We’ve designed this from the ground-up to be highly secure because we knew from day one that if we are not as secure as Fort Knox, it’s game over for ALICE,” says Lauren.

ALICE is at the right place at the right time 

2020 has been unparalleled in history and going virtual is the new standard. Across organizations and teams, the question being asked is, how does one efficiently and effectively govern, manage, and monitor without being able to be physically present on sites.

As Lauren admits, ALICE was created not knowing what was coming but now finds it perfectly positioned for the times ahead. The Platform allows you to perform work globally and remotely in a secure and scalable manner. She professes extreme gratitude for being able to launch ALICE when the world is looking at an inconceivable future.

As we all look upon a new uncharted future, we can draw courage from knowing that what we create today may someday be the engines of the future.

Going forward, ALICE is gearing up to scale its business across the world. Bidvest has partnered with Janus Advisory Services, to penetrate the global market. On a parting note, Lauren emphasizes that this is just the beginning. “The thing about technology is that it always keeps evolving, and we want to make sure we do too. I am comforted by the fact that I have the team to do that”, she says.

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