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Historically, an audit trail had to do with being able to provide a complete history of any given financial transaction. The idea was to be able to identify each step in the process from the initiation of the transaction all the way through to the completion of the transaction. Typically, this process took place by being able to produce paper documents that showed the progress of the transaction from start to finish. Today, an audit trail also has to do with tracing data in electronic form as well, with the transactions not necessarily limited to financial data.
An audit trail of any type will include an attempt to establish a chronological list of steps that were necessary to begin the transaction as well as bring it to completion. They can be very simplistic or extremely complicated, depending on the number of steps involved with the transaction. For example, conducting an audit trail on an invoice issued by a vendor would be a relatively simple process.
Beginning with the receipt of the invoice, the document is tracked through Accounts Payable, all the way through to the issuance of a check or electronic payment to settle the debt. At the same time, creating an audited trail to allow for the reconstruction of a manufacturing process may contain many more steps and become very difficult to follow.
An auditor may choose to begin the process of creating an audit trail from either the beginning or the completion of the transaction under consideration. Often, beginning the audit process with the most recent completed phase and working backward is an efficient means of establishing the trail. However, when both the beginning point and the point of completion are well established, it is possible to approach the trail from both ends simultaneously, simply filling in the steps occurring between the start and finishing steps to the transaction.
Using an audit trail can often be an effective tool in managing the financial and other resources of a business or organization. The process of identifying the trail may in fact help to identify steps within the process that were unnecessary and that can be eliminated in future transactions. Another important application of this process is that it can uncover attempts to manipulate the financial profile of the entity, perhaps in an attempt to cover up the fact that funds are missing or were misappropriated in some manner. Basically, the audit trail is a helpful device to ensure that transactions are conducted smoothly and honestly, with the least amount of necessary steps employed in the process.