ACL Services: Scouring the Entire Haystack

By Joshua Weinberger Print this article Print

To Catholic Healthcare Audit Network's Jill Linden, ACL "is an incredibly powerful tool.

To Catholic Healthcare Audit Network's Jill Linden, ACL "is an incredibly powerful tool. The level of analysis we can do with ACL makes [our findings] hard to dispute." In fact, the power can at times be overwhelming. "If you're doing all this analysis, you're coming up with all these exception reports"—each of which flags a potential anomaly, or a series of transactions that fall outside an expected trend. Every report then needs to be examined. "Clients [sometimes] yell 'Uncle'."

Where Excel maxes out at just over 60,000 records, says BlueCross BlueShield's Clay Cochran, "ACL lets you load any type of file, regardless of the data size. You're basically limited just by your storage capability." Auditors used to look at a small sample and extrapolate. "With ACL, instead of looking at 30 employees, I can look at the entire company," he says. "We've found more errors as a result."

"The closer you are to the raw data, the better," says Meridian's Ralph Wood, "I want the very rawest data—and ACL seems to be able to read anything." But, as with any data-analysis tool, data quality is a constant concern. "If the data's bad, all the analytics will be bad," says HarborView's David A. Less. A series of 12 identical payments could be a problem—or they could just be monthly rent checks, poorly tagged.

ACL empowers auditors to try new things. "We go into an audit for a specific reason," Alcatel's Kerry Shulman says. "But with ACL sometimes you just play around and find unique relationships" that lead to unexpected results. And ACL keeps improving. "Each new version gets easier and easier," Shulman says— ACL 8 "is more like a portal."

Cochran likes that he can "do a lot of the data analysis myself, instead of having to rely on a programmer. I can have a result in 10 minutes instead of having to wait for two days."

ACL's audit log—capturing every keystroke and query—is another popular feature. Useful groups of queries—known as batches—can then be shared with other users, according to Linden. "We never have to build from scratch—we're constantly refining our standard batches."

But some limitations remain. When importing data, Shulman says ACL "can't handle report files with wrapped data over multiple lines," and "will only handle importing one tab per spreadsheet," she says. With multiple tabs, "you have to pre-format a little bit," which she says can take a half-hour of preparation time.

That may be time well spent, if looking for needles in a haystack means spinning the hay into gold. KeyCorp's Fred Sarazin says ACL is directly responsible for bringing back $700,000 in duplicate payments—and for uncovering at least one six-figure fraud.

ACL Services
1550 Alberni Street
Vancouver, British Columbia, V6G 1A5 /
(604) 669-4225

Ticker: Private; founded 1987.

Employees: 152 worldwide

Harald Will
President, CEO, Founder
The company's driving force, his idea was to put his father's 1972 algorithm at the core of an analytic engine—and sell it.

John Verver
VP, Professional Svcs. Grp.
A longtime champion of computer-assisted audit techniques, he leads global consulting, training and support services. Prior to joining ACL in 1991, he was a principal with Deloitte & Touche.

Robert Fuller
VP, Development
Joined ACL in 2001. Responsible for the overall strategic direction of product development, including R&D activities, product management and quality assurance. Holds a computer science degree and an MBA.

ACL for Windows 8 compares, recalculates, and verifies files of transactional data, looking for errors and fraud. ACL for OS/390 provides direct access to mainframe operational data. The ACL Client/Server System integrates results for analysis.

Recent accounting scandals have cast a spotlight on auditing, but ACL's been gathering converts since long before Enron imploded. Auditors may not be effusive by nature, but get them started on how ACL has heightened their investigative prowess, and the praise flows.

Reference Checks

Fred Sarazin
SVP, Operations Risk Management
(216) 689-3813
Project: Regional banking chain has used ACL for more than three years, first in the medical-benefits area, and now in accounts payable and in the branches.

Meridian Systems
Ralph Wood
(250) 704-9686
Project: Consulting firm uses ACL to assist British Columbia's Ministry of Provincial Revenue in accurately auditing individuals' and companies' tax compliance.

Catholic Healthcare Audit Networt
Jill Linden
VP, Audit
(856) 797-1883
Project: Auditing consultancy adds about a dozen ACL users a year to provide its health-care clientele with risk assessments and accounts-payable analysis.

Kerry Shulman Audit Mgr., Alcatel Group Audit Svcs.
(972) 519-6559
Project: Telecommunications giant has 13 worldwide ACL 8 licenses to search for duplicate payments, analyze customer-product-returns data, and validate metrics, among other uses.

BlueCross BlueShield of Louisiana
Clay Cochran
Senior Audit Consultant
(225) 295-2265
Project: Currently using ACL to keep tabs on its deployment of PeopleSoft, conducting queries on files as large as 500 megabytes. Not yet using ACL for fraud detection.

AIG American General
Jim Goldsmith, Senior Supervising Internal Auditor
(713) 831-2221
Project: Insurance firm upgraded to ACL for Windows in 1998, but use dates back to the "ACL for DOS" era. Used remotely by auditors when performing field audits.

HarborView Partners
David A. Less
(225) 295-2265
Project: Connecticut-based independent auditing firm brings ACL to bear on its clients' business processes.

The executives listed here are all customers of ACL Services. Their willingness to talk has been confirmed by Baseline.

This article was originally published on 2003-08-01
Assistant Editor
After being on staff at The New Yorker for five years, Josh later traveled the world, hitting all seven continents in a single year. At Yale University, he majored in American Studies, English, and Theatre Studies.

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