ISACA Journal
Volume 5, 2,016 


IS Audit Basics: The Soft Skills Challenge, Part 5: CPEs and Learning to Learn 

Ed Gelbstein, Ph.D. and Stefano Baldi 

The IS Audit Basics column that appeared in the volume 1, 2015, issue of the ISACA Journal1 contained a table illustrating the impermanence of information systems, technologies and audit practices. Major transformations take place frequently: every 10-year cycle calls for new knowledge to deal with these changes.

Leon C. Megginson wrote in 1963, “According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intelligent of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”2

Regardless whether or not IS auditors are a “species,” failure to adapt to the changing environment is likely to be a career-limiting move. Hence, the need for some form of continuing professional education (CPE) credits, which many professional bodies such as ISACA require practitioners to earn to maintain certifications such as Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).

Some CPE credits are easy to acquire, for example, attending a conference where the amount learned may be minimal (particularly if there is a golf course nearby!). Others are harder, such as an intense training course ending with an examination. Self-study does not earn credits, so spending months reading hundreds of pages of documents such as COBIT 5 may provide a great deal of knowledge, but not count as CPE.

This column asks readers to consider how well they know how to learn. It is phrased this way because of a favorite cartoon of ours, in which two young boys and a dog are depicted. In the first panel, the first boy says, “I taught my dog how to whistle.” In the next panel, the second boy puts his ear close to the dog and says, “I don’t hear anything.” The third panel shows the first boy saying, “I said I taught him, not that he learned it.”

Knowledge Acquisition

The quote “It is a great nuisance that knowledge can be acquired only by hard work”3 is absolutely right.

Just as a computer needs to be booted up, young children appear to have a built-in boot-up ability to acquire information about their environment, order it in some manner and, at the appropriate time, activate specific functions: sitting up, crawling, standing up, talking, and asking the fundamental question for learning: “Why?” From birth, we are exposed to many sources of information (figure 1). Information is data placed in a specific context. This information may be correct or not (the concepts of misinformation and disinformation are well known).

In practice, these sources can lead to an information overload. With the addition of the media and social networks, acquiring information can become like trying to drink water from a fireman’s hose: unsatisfying and hard to manage.

Knowledge is something that resides in the brain and has been acquired through study, reflection, practice and experience.

Philosophers, psychologists and educators have devoted considerable effort to defining knowledge, its acquisition and application. There are several taxonomies (schemes of classification) and one of them (Bloom’s) is reflected in this column. According to this study, there are four fundamental types of knowledge, summarized in figure 2.4

Self-knowledge was the subject of a previous column in this series.5 True learning should lead to a view of the subject matter that encompasses all four types of knowledge.

The taxonomy proceeds to define six levels of acquiring knowledge summarized in figure 3.

At the remembering level, the learner has acquired factual knowledge—equivalent to memorizing the multiplication tables. Necessary, but not sufficient, it must be complemented by understanding (i.e., the conceptual level), which puts the factual knowledge into its proper context.

The procedural knowledge that comes with applying develops with practice. In audit, this generates findings that need to be analyzed (i.e., organized by subject and/or criticality).

The evaluation of the information obtained through this process leads to developing appropriate observations and recommendations and deciding how these are going to be reported, done in the creation stage.

Tools and Techniques That Support Learning

It would be nice to identify a universal and easy way to learn. Even after many years of learning and teaching, one has not been found. However, the learner’s tool kit in figure 4 appears to work for many and has been presented to postgraduate students, diplomats and others over the years.

The tool kit suggests that a first step should be the assessment of one’s prior knowledge of a particular topic and one’s personal learning style.

Prior knowledge is the foundation for further learning; it enables the student to avoid spending time on domains that have already been mastered and, at the same time, ensures that the foundation is adequate for further development. A weak foundation is not a good place to start.

Learning styles are a personal matter. What works for one person may be of no value to another. Trial and error plus practice are the best guidelines to identify what works best for each individual. Figure 5 presents a summary of what experts consider to be average retention rates for various methods of learning.

Two critical factors are not reflected in this figure: the quality of the didactic material and the teaching ability of the trainer or facilitator, if there is one. Aarhus University in Denmark produced a short video titled “Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding”6 that explains these challenges in a concise and clear way.

Also absent from the figure is the learner’s ability to acquire, process and store information.

Another key element that supports learning is time management. There is no shortage of guidance on this topic. For the purpose of this column, the emphasis should be on developing the ability to avoid distractions and interruptions and the art of saying “no” to allow the learner to focus on the task at hand.

Two additional tools are easy to apply and cost nothing: mind mapping,7 which was discussed in this column in volume 5, 2016, of the ISACA Journal (figures 1, 2 and 4 in this column are, in fact, mind maps), and the ability to deconstruct a document.

Document deconstruction removes text without reducing the value of the document. For example, the types of text that might be removed include introductions, acknowledgments, citations and quotations, and text that can only be described as “padding” or “repetitive.” Using this approach, it is possible to reduce a business book of several hundred pages to key points in a summary of six to eight pages. There are several commercial sources of summaries of business books as well as notes for students; it is worth using a search engine to find them if only to view examples of well-deconstructed documents.

In doing document deconstruction, it is a good idea to start with the table of contents because it provides a high-level view of how the document is structured. Illustrations in the form of diagrams and tables are also good summaries that, in many cases, need no further explanation.

Deconstruction is much easier to do than composing a complex document. It is the equivalent of disassembling a structure made out of various components such as a clock; note that it does not offer the capability of putting the item together again.

Coming Next

The next column will discuss barriers to learning. In many cases, these barriers may dampen a student’s enthusiasm or desire to explore, understand and do things. Study can become a chore and repetitive practices can become tedious. How many children want to play a musical instrument, but give up after one or two years of lessons?

Of course, this does not apply only to children. Probably every reader of this column has bought books (in the case of one author of this column, Don Quixote) with every intention to read them and has not gotten past page 30, or just put them aside for “later” and then failed to pick them up again.

The upcoming column will address how to overcome some of those barriers so learning can continue unabated.


1 Gelbstein, E.; “Perspectives From a Seasoned Practitioner,” ISACA Journal, vol. 1, 2015,
2 Megginson, L. C.; “Lessons from Europe for American Business,” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, vol. 44, iss. 1, 1963, p. 3-13
3 Somerset Maugham, W.; Ten Novels and Their Authors, Academy Chicago Publishers, USA, 1983 cited by M. Gorman; “Our Singular Strengths: Meditations for Librarians,” American Library Association, 1998
4 Anderson, L. W., et al; A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Abridged Edition, Pearson, USA, 2000
5 Gelbstein, E.; “Auditor: About Yourself (And How Others See You),” ISACA Journal, vol. 2, 2015,
6 Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding, Aarhus University Press, Denmark, 2006,
7 Buzan, T.; B. Buzan; The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential, Plume, USA, 1996

Ed Gelbstein, Ph.D., 1940-2015
Worked in IS/IT in the private and public sectors in various countries for more than 50 years. Gelbstein did analog and digital development in the 1960s, incorporated digital computers in the control systems for continuous process in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and managed projects of increasing size and complexity until the early 1990s. In the ‘90s, he became an executive at the preprivatized British Railways and then the United Nations global computing and data communications provider. Following his (semi) retirement from the UN, he joined the audit teams of the UN Board of Auditors and the French National Audit Office. Thanks to his generous spirit and prolific writing, his column will continue to be published in the ISACA Journal posthumously.

Stefano Baldi
Is an Italian career diplomat and an early adopter of information systems and communications as well as a driving force for the more extensive use of online learning. Baldi is the director of training at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His diplomatic postings have included serving as the permanent representative of Italy at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland; and, subsequently, New York City, New York, USA, and at the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. Baldi has authored and coauthored several books on diplomacy-related topics and has run courses for diplomats from around the world on topics such as information management and information security


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