What's the difference between assessment and audit?

26 July 2013

A question often asked is "What's the difference between an assessment and an audit?" The difference comes down to the objective of each.

In an audit, you have a "standard" and an explanation of how the activity should be performed (normally a process or procedure). Together, these are prescriptive; they define how things SHOULD be done. The auditor is there to check firstly whether the described process conforms to the standard and secondly whether the operators are following the described process. An audit is therefore a control to check whether people are doing what they are told they should be doing.

In an assessment, there is no "standard". This is replaced with a set of concepts and principles; for us, the EFQM Excellence Model. These describe desirable outcomes but not the specifics on how they should be achieved; that's up to the organisation to decide. The Assessors are there to find out why people have chosen to do things the way they do and what other options have been considered. The objective is therefore learning; if that's what we want to achieve, are we doing the right things?

This explains the differences in the way, and speed with which, the Excellence Model and standards evolve over time. In a non-prescriptive framework, you only need to define the "what". The "how" is the challenge that needs to be addressed by the organisation. This makes it easier to incorporate emerging trends and new concepts. Standards, by their nature and function, need to be prescriptive. This means the "how" has to be known before being described as a "standard".

Both approaches are valid and both add value. The difference though is fundamental to the terms used. A "standard" is something everyone should aim to achieve. "Excellence" is defined as exceptional, therefore if everyone does it, it's no longer "excellent". That's why we see concepts described in excellence models eventually being incorporated into standards over time. From our perspective, this is a good thing. If anything, it validates the work of EFQM and the "early adopters" organisations. The challenge with "excellence" is to always stay steps ahead of the "standard" and drive sustainable performance to the next level.

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