The British Standards Institution – or BSI – plays a part in many of our lives, whether you realise it or not. It is the national standards body for the UK, ensuring quality across a huge range of sectors through the production of technical standards. BSI is utilising advanced technology in incredible ways, and this is thanks to the expertise of its international team, who are always aiming to make the world a better place.
Harold Pradal, Group Chief Commercial Officer, has a background in biomedical engineering and he spent much of his career in the healthcare field. As somebody who enjoys being in roles that really give something back to the world, he was attracted to BSI. It’s a not-for-distributed-profits organisation with purpose, tackling the issues that are critical in the modern world, and that proved a winning combination for Pradal.
Dan Purtell, Group Director of Innovation, joined BSI through the acquisition of a supply chain business he sold to the company in 2009. His skills in the supply chain risk and compliance space have continued to be utilised by BSI, as it’s still a major part of the business, and three years ago he shifted to the innovation role he currently holds. As well as supply chain, his experience is in security, counterterrorism, and predictive modelling – again, roles which revolve around making positive societal change.
One of the most exciting, important, and industry-leading tasks BSI takes on is immersive auditing. Using best-in-class immersive technology, BSI is at the forefront of the industry in this sphere, and there are so many reasons why most BSI customers now prefer to audit this way. You won’t be surprised to hear that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its adoption considerably – in fact, although Purtell’s innovation team had been working on immersive auditing for 18 months by the time the genuine need for it really came into play, one specific situation jump-started its use.
The start of an era
“In January 2020, I was in Tokyo on a business trip,” says Pradal. “I received a call from Dan (Purtell) in the US to discuss a very special case where two auditors had landed in Wuhan and could not get into the city. At that stage, we didn’t understand why. The client wasn’t happy because they couldn’t get their audits done, so they would not acquire or retain their certificates, which would ultimately not only threaten their operations but also put their entire export strategy at risk. The pressure was building up, and Dan came up with the brilliant idea to try a real life remote, immersive audit for that client. That was the turning point.”
The concept is very simple: perform an audit using virtual (or, more accurately, augmented) reality smart wearable or mobile devices. Someone on-site, who is not an auditor, wears the smart wearables and an auditor guides them through an earpiece so that they perform the audit together. This gives the auditors images and video footage that can be reviewed as many times as needed, and they have live proof of any issues or non-conformities occurring whilst providing instant feedback to the manager in charge. BSI delivered its first immersive audit in mid-February 2020, after a few weeks spent getting the technology on site and set up. Between then and December 2020, BSI performed over 140,000 audits this way. “That’s put BSI at the forefront and leading edge of this technology,” Pradal says.
“We started working on this back in 2018; it was one of our first projects from an innovation perspective,” adds Purtell. “And we had a lot of failures back then, but failing fast is a good thing – we wanted to weed out the inferior solutions that wouldn’t work, and partner only with those whose technology roadmap aligned with ours. By the end of 2018, we’d been through at least 30 different iterations of what would become our Immersive Solution and we were ready to scale it globally.
“It’s important to understand employing our Immersive Solutions isn’t just about not travelling to deliver our services.,” he continues. “From a sustainability perspective, we took the equivalent of a thousand cars off the road for a full year, so the carbon offset as a result of immersive auditing is huge. Also, from an efficiency perspective, if we have a client who has 12 sites around the world, immersive auditing allows one person to cover all those sites effectively in a way that’s otherwise unrealistic. Features that are part of our immersive program aide and augment our global auditing workforce are becoming the building blocks of our Digital Assurance strategy.”
A thought leader
BSI provides four different levels of immersive auditing with increasing complexity of technologies surrounding each subsequent one, to be implemented based on a client’s specific requirements. The four levels have now been trademarked, because the business fully expects auditing organisations to follow suit with their own virtual auditing technology. In fact, BSI – as the only certified company that can actually deliver these audits right now – has created a specific vocabulary around this type of service and that’s now being used industry-wide. While others are working to catch up, BSI is standardising what it offers, delivering digital excellence and assurance across the board and further reinforcing its position as a thought leader in the field.
What’s interesting is how clients have responded to immersive auditing. Prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t really being promoted as a concept and BSI didn’t necessarily realise the full benefits either. Certainly, some industries didn’t recognise them for a very long time.
“Some company or sector programs suffered as a result of not adopting immersive auditing early in the pandemic,” says Purtell. “They didn’t have the transparency they needed and they were eventually forced to adopt immersive auditing for fear of being left behind, or having trust and transparency issues within their or their suppliers organisations.” On the whole, client feedback has been extraordinarily positive across the board, which begs the question: is traditional auditing set to change forever?
“This is an organisation that’s confirmed its resilience over the last two years, in the way we contribute to and support the business of our clients,” says Pradal. “We ensure that their products and services are safe and are able to be sold. The pandemic has acted like a catalyst in a way, allowing us to bring in the technology that concretely enhances efficiency and speed. There was no longer resistance because it was the only way to deliver the service. As the world recovers, it will be our duty to continue to try and use remote technologies as much as we can, because it is the right thing to do for the planet and its people.”
“I don’t think traditional or on-site auditing will ever die,” adds Purtell. “I do think that what you’re going to have in the future is not needing to be on-site for delivery 100% of the time. Immersive or hybrid auditing makes continuous assurance realistic, providing deeper insights and being more predictive, more proactive, more digital. And you need real-time connectivity to provide that.”
The benefits vs. the doubts
Of course, there are still laggards, and some people still have their doubts. For Pradal, the environmental difference between immersive and in-person audits alone is worth making the change. On top of the dramatically reduced carbon footprint, it’s also good for the BSI team culture, wellbeing and morale. “In terms of lifestyle, it offers a better balance for our people, who can continue to passionately deliver their expertise and value, and at scale.” he explains. “And the same is true for our clients. It saves them time and, in most instances, enhances efficiencies.”
For Purtell, immersive auditing is broadly at least as effective as in-person auditing. It’s important, from his perspective, to note that immersive auditing isn’t about replacing people – after all, at the end of the day, a trained auditor is still at the other end of the connection. “Our connected auditors are collecting and analysing data, interpreting it and providing the client insight the same as if they were onsite,” he says. “Our workforce’s digital skills and knowledge will have to increase to keep up with technology. Where immersive can become even better than traditional auditing is when we are continuously connected with the client, analysing and interpreting real-time data and providing live insights on risks and opportunities. Predictive and Continuous Assurance will change the landscape of our industry forever, and BSI is pioneering the digital path towards it.”
No organisation is an island, and BSI is no exception. Close collaborations with other organisations have impacted its journey and have played a major part in its recent operations. It’s exciting for Pradal, who sees this kind of collaboration as a great way to grow and discover new solutions.
“BSI has become better and more digital over the last few years and accepted that we can’t do everything ourselves – we need to secure the right strategic partnerships,” he says. “For example, blockchain is at the core of how we can bring trust to our clients’ supply chain through enhanced visibility and traceability. We’ve been executing practical use cases in supply chains and issuing digital certificates with our partner, Trace Labs. Transparency is trust, and with a growing deficit of supply chain and credential trust, blockchain technology remains an exciting part of our roadmap.”
For Purtell, hardware-based partnerships are also a big focus. BSI has joined forces with RealWear and uses its mobile technology, which is the best level three technology BSI found on the market. This partnership is continuing to develop additional features and functions, while other hardware and software collaborations will help BSI develop its roadmap further in the realm of things it wants to do well and be known for.
“We continue to work with a lot of different technology partners to ensure we’re at the forefront of pioneering our services,” Purtell says. “We don’t want to lose the market lead that we have, so we have to continue disrupt in this space. It’s not about sitting on our laurels because we’ve successfully made many of our services remote or hybrid – it’s about a continuous wave of innovation that’s going to come with this technology and provide the client more value. That’s what is really going to set us apart and change the dynamics of assurance completely.”
Continuous innovation is the key phrase for the BSI innovation road map. Enhancing the way auditing works within BSI is a major priority, because improving immersivity requires ongoing development. In fact, the future will see BSI going one step further and moving away from the common definition of auditing – seeing only a picture of a situation at one point in time – and moving towards constant, predictive analytics.
“We want to be able to provide predictive analytics to our clients, which is the ability to continuously record data and predict where issues will likely arise even before they do,” Pradal explains. “It’s a completely different space, and we believe it will happen much earlier than people initially imagined.” BSI is also starting to develop AI-based insights and machine-readable technology, which would allow clients to use standards in a completely different way. “That could be embedded into the design phase of a product or a service, to ensure those standards are in the DNA of the product. In other words, this will allow consumers to use increasingly better, safer products and services and in parallel, foster innovation.”
It’s vital that immersive technology is not considered in a short-sighted way, for Purtell. “If you’re only looking at it from the perspective of not having to fly an auditor from point A to B, you have really missed the point,” he says. “We need to fight the urge to go back to the way things were done pre-pandemic. There are still going to be times where you need to visit a site, but I think now is when it starts to get exciting. We’ve only just begun to see the capability of what this technology offers – AI, machine learning, computer vision – this is where we can start to provide insight and value that’s unprecedented in the audit world.”
With the entire BSI team on board, the company continues to fly the pioneering flag in its industry. Perhaps there’s a little luck behind its recent successes, with the pandemic certainly playing a part in accelerating adoption, but as Pradal said, this was merely the catalyst. BSI was already primed and ready to change auditing in a major way, and long may it continue.
Purtell concludes: “I’ll take that bit of luck and immersive was one of our first use cases back in 2018, but it’s also insight – the insight to know you don’t always have to send a person onsite to do an effective job. Slowly, a lot of industries are finally realising that.”