What are Soft Controls ?

27In the world of Audit[1], a Control[2][3] is basically a mechanism allowing to validate that an organization is functioning in an effective[4] and efficient[5] manner. It is also a way to reveal potential risks, areas of improvement and anti-patterns[6]. Controls allow to assess the gap between the reality and the perception we have of it.


What are “soft” controls ?

We are all used to refer to skills as hard and soft. Hard skills[7] are teachable abilities that can be defined and measured while Soft skills[8] pertain to emotional intelligence[9], human qualities like communication, listening, relationship with others, they are related to feelings, emotions, insights[10], acumen[11], values, beliefs, ethics, openness …

The same classification can be applied to controls. Hard controls are tangible like the organization structure, procedures, laws and regulations while Soft controls[12][13][14] deal with intangible aspects like culture, values, beliefs, unwritten tradition, trust, ethics.

What are soft controls useful for ?

The weight of intangible aspects (culture, values, beliefs, ethics …) on an organization overall effectiveness and efficiency (cost, delays, quality) is significant or even predominant in some cases. Having a grasp on what their actual nature is shows to be a powerful management parameter and an approach of choice to improvement.


[1] Audit, wikipedia
[2] Internal control, COSO
[3] Internal control, wikipedia
[4] Effectiveness, wikipedia
[5] Efficiency, wikipedia
[6] Anti-pattern, wikipedia
[7] Hard skills, money-zine
[8] Soft skills, money-zine
[9] Emotional intelligence, wikipedia
[10] Insight, Meriam-Webster
[11] Acumen, Oxford dictionaries
[12] Soft and Strong: A Best-practice Paradox, Tone At The Top issue 50 ,March 2011
[13] Control systems: ‘HARD’ AND ‘SOFT’ MANAGEMENT CONTROLS, MCA, March 2007 issue 2
[14] Soft controls : A Dallas/Fort Worth Perspective, The 1998-1999 Research Project

One Comment

  1. Marc Bodson says:

    I encountered over and over again the effects you mention in “the weight of intangible aspects” in the organisations I worked for. IMHO, real progress can be made when those who wield power inside the organisation can be convinced to let go, take a leap of faith and to ‘experiment’. Which is problematic because they thereby subject themselves to potential criticism, be wholly misunderstood and buildup new risks to fail that end up decreasing their ability to succeed. I strongly believe the only way out for established organisations is to replace the leadership team and get the right leader on top who will take full ownership of hard+soft changes and push them to their very end (across the organisation, its processes, its methods…). We all know how difficult it is to find such rare breed of leaders. That does not vouch very well for a large chunk of established corporations.

    Startup companies have a different story to tell, one where values, ethos, agility and focus are most usually embedded from the start however they face a different game. They must succeed to master growing complexity over time without resorting to the traps of the more established corporations who add levels of responsibilities (hierarchy), processes and procedures and end up failing to scale successfully.

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