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Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

Audit automation as control within audit firms

Stuart Manson, Sean McCartney, Michael Sherer,
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Audit automation as control Audit

automation as
within audit firms control
Stuart Manson, Sean McCartney and Michael Sherer
Department of Accounting, Finance and Management, 109
University of Essex, Colchester, UK
Received November 1998
Keywords Management control, Auditing, Automation, Information technology Revised August 1999,
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Abstract This paper explores the nature of audit automation as control within audit firms. The March 2000
themes of the paper are control over the work process and audit staff, deskilling and resistance, and Accepted April 2000
competition, which are analysed using the theoretical framework provided by Coombs et al., who
applied Giddens' structuration theory to research the impact of information technology in
organizations. Building on a previous survey study we interviewed audit staff at all levels in two
Big 5 audit firms. The results show that audit automation cannot be viewed simply as a technology for
improving the quality and/or productivity of the audit process. It also has value as a symbol of the
firm's market competitiveness and hence helps to promote the firm both to clients and internally. In
addition, the research shows that audit automation offers considerable opportunities for greater
managerial surveillance and control, but at the same time it facilitates a less hierarchical and more
informal organisational structure.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of audit automation on work
practices in audit firms. To do this we have undertaken an empirical study of
two Big Five audit firms[1] and analysed the findings through the lens of
Giddens' structuration theory and the analytical framework for understanding
information technology developed by Coombs et al. (1992), which is based on
Giddens' work.
The use of information technology (IT) in the audit process has greatly
increased in the last few years. This is especially the case for the Big Five audit
firms who have been motivated by the desire to improve efficiency to compete
for clients. Although it is invariably the policy of the Big Five audit firms in the
UK to recruit graduates, they provide a very poor return on investment in the
first two years because of study leave for examinations and inexperience in
audit judgement (Benveniste et al., 1987). At the same time, the threat of
litigation has required audit firms to maintain and improve the quality of audit
work. Because of its reliability and accuracy, IT offers audit firms the
opportunity to enhance the quality of their work and to improve the
productivity of professional staff.
The increased use of IT is not the only strategy being adopted by the Big
Five audit firms to cope with a more competitive environment. There has been

The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Institute of Chartered
Accountants of Scotland for the research project on which this paper is based. They would like
to thank the two anonymous reviewers, the participants at the Conference on Change in
Knowledge-Based Organizations, University of Alberta, 19-20 May 1995, and participants at the Accounting, Auditing &
Accountability Journal,
Fifth Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Accounting Conference, University of Manchester, 7-9 Vol. 14 No. 1, 2001, pp. 109-130.
July 1997 for their constructive comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. # MCB University Press, 0951-3574
AAAJ a move away from systems and transactions audits to risk-based auditing,
14,1 which concentrates the effort of the audit team on those parts of the client's
business with the highest audit risk (Manson, 1997). Associated with the use of
risk-based auditing, there has been an increase in the adoption of IT to carry
out the more routine audit procedures. This might have implications for the
work not only of professional audit staff but also secretarial and clerical staff.
110 Therefore, our study of two of the Big Five audit firms explored the perceptions
of both junior and senior audit staff towards their work roles as a consequence
of the increasing use of IT.
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Audit firms have been at the forefront of the use of microcomputers for
many years, especially for accounts preparation, and more recently there have
been a number of applications used in the audit process. These applications are
normally grouped together under the heading audit automation, defined by one
professional accounting publication as:
The use of computers in the management, planning, performance and completion of audits to
eliminate or reduce time spent on computational or clerical tasks, to improve the quality of
audit judgements, and to ensure consistent audit quality (ICAEW, 1993, p. 5).

In addition to these benefits, the same publication suggests that audit

automation can improve motivation, job satisfaction and performance of staff
by eliminating tedious or unproductive audit steps. Audit automation can also
free audit staff for analytical rather than clerical tasks and hence facilitate the
provision of a quality service to clients; enhance client perceptions of the
quality of the audit service; and improve computer literacy in staff.
A survey by Manson et al. (1997) found that audit automation was used in
most aspects of the audit process, more extensively by the Big Five audit firms
than others, although much of what is termed audit automation consists merely
of word-processing and spreadsheet applications. Audit firms justified their
large investments in audit automation by the need to improve the quality of
audit work and reduce audit costs. In other words, audit automation can be
viewed as simply another technology that audit firms employ to maintain their
competitiveness and profitability.
The positivist nature of the research method in our survey only permitted a
first order, quantitative, assessment of the impact of audit automation on the
audit process. Previous research has shown that information technology can
have complex and significant implications for organisations (Markus and
Robey, 1988; Boland and O'Leary, 1991; Child, 1991; Orlikowski, 1991; Helliwell
and Fowler, 1994). In investigating such complex implications of audit
automation a qualitative research method is more appropriate. This research
method of semi-structured interviews also provided us with alternative
perceptions of audit automation from those of the partners and senior
managers who participated in the survey. To help ground our qualitative
approach and provide a means of interpreting our findings we applied
theoretical concepts derived from the research on information technology by
Coombs et al. (1992). The latter's work is based on Giddens' structuration Audit
theory and, therefore, in our analysis we relate our findings more generally to automation as
certain aspects of Giddens' framework. control
The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows. The first section outlines a
theoretical framework informed by the structuration ideas of Giddens (1976;
1979; 1984) and the research on the impact of IT in organizations by Coombs
et al. (1992). In the second section, material from a field study within two of the 111
Big Five audit firms is presented and discussed using this framework. The
final section draws some conclusions from the study.
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Theoretical framework
We argue that IT can have an impact on organisations in two ways. First, the
introduction of IT can have specific implications for the behaviour and
attitudes of individuals working in organisations. Second, IT can affect the
structure and processes of the organisation. Exploring individual and
structural relationships has been taken up by a number of writers who have
utilised structuration theory (Giddens, 1976; 1979; 1984) to explore the
relationship between IT and human behaviour. For example, Orlikowski (1991)
reports on a field study in a single organization that implemented IT in its
production process. Using Giddens' analysis she argues that IT can be
interpreted as an occasion for structuring organizations which both facilitates
and constrains action. Agents in organizations draw on the rules and resources
embodied within IT in conducting their tasks. But in their very use of IT they
unconsciously reaffirm its importance, form and content, and reproduce those
rules and resources as their organization's structural properties. It is also
possible for agents to change the technology and hence more directly affect the
structure of the organization.
Similarly, Walton and Vittori (1983) recognise that the impact of IT can be
dynamic and reciprocal. Not only can IT directly affect roles and behaviour, but
the way IT is used can also produce second order effects on both managers and
subordinates. Again, this reciprocal process recalls the role of duality in
Giddens' (1979) structuration framework. Other studies that have used
structuration theory in investigating accounting phenomena include: Boland
(1982), Roberts and Scapens (1985), Dillard and Yuthas (1997), and Yuthas and
Dillard (1997-98). Of particular relevance to this study is the work of Dillard
and Yuthas (1997). They investigated the introduction of IT in a Big Five audit
firm and found that implementing a strategic IT initiative required structural
changes and that ``once resources are re-allocated and the system implemented,
further changes in the structures result'' (p. 269) This study extends the work of
Dillard and Yuthas. Their case study applied structuration theory to an IT
adoption decision and aspects of its implementation, whilst our research
focuses on the impact of implementation on certain audit work practices, using
interviews with a range of staff in two Big Five audit firms to explore more
fully issues identified in our previous survey (Manson et al., 1997). Giddens
(1979) also emphasises the importance of unintended consequences in the
AAAJ dynamics of organizational change. An endogenous change, such as the
14,1 introduction of IT, may have its antecedents in exogenous change, such as
increased competition in the market place. Whatever type of IT system is
introduced will produce some unintended effects, because there is a change to
the system and the structure. It is the way the organization copes with this
unintended effect that is important.
112 The remainder of this section provides an outline of structuration theory
as espoused by Giddens and then discusses the paper by Coombs et al.
(1992), which seeks to provide a coherent theoretical framework for
analysing and understanding the interaction between IT, culture, control
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and competition. Giddens' structuration theory attempts to link two

contrasting approaches to social theory. The first, usually associated with
approaches such as functionalism, emphasises structural aspects but
ignores the role of agents. The second, for example ethnomethodology and
action related research, emphasises the role of individuals, but minimises
structural aspects. In structuration theory, agents' actions are considered to
take place within a structural framework, but at the same time it is these
actions that reproduce the structures, possibly in a changed form. The
notion of action taking place within a set of structures, and in so doing
reproducing those structures, is termed the duality of structure. It is this
duality that ensures continuity of social practices across time and space.
Giddens' contribution has been to attempt to link structure with agency. He
does this by defining structure as consisting of rules and resources that are
drawn on by agents in their actions. Structure for Giddens consists of three
aspects, signification, domination and legitimation. These are linked to
interaction through what are known as modalities; the relationships
between these are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.
Giddens' duality of
Signification refers to the system of semantic rules or conventions, domination Audit
to systems of resources and legitimation to systems of moral rules (Giddens, automation as
1976). From the diagram it can be seen that these systems are related to control
interaction through the modalities of the interpretive scheme, facility and
norms. The modalities serve as a bridge between the knowing and purposeful
agent and the three categories of structure. Interpretive schemes are the stocks
of knowledge that agents draw on when they make sense of what other agents 113
say or how they act. Thus, interpretive schemes involve giving meaning, not
only to ways of talking or specific modes of discourse, but also the
interpretation of actions. These interpretive schemes will be historically
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informed and will be dependent on both local and more general communities.
By this is meant that the stocks of knowledge used by actors may be
conditioned, for example by living in a capitalistic society or more locally by
the modes of discourse in a profession. Thus, when IT is introduced in an audit
firm its staff would bring similar perspectives to the rationale for its
introduction. For example, one of the stated rationales for introducing IT might
be to increase profitability, and staff in a business-oriented profession in a
capitalist economy are likely to identify with this.
The structure of domination arises from the use of power through the
modality of facility. This facility consists of allocative resources (control over
objects or materials) and authoritative resources (command over individuals). It
is through using these resources that agents can affect outcomes by influencing
the conduct of others. By drawing on these resources of domination actors
reproduce the order of domination. In the context of audit firms, partners are
able to exercise power over audit assistants because the firms' structures give
them that authority. In addition, each individual partner may influence an audit
assistant's salary level or promotion prospects. Thus, because partners have
allocative resources they can exercise a level of power over audit assistants.
The final level of interaction, morality, involves the application of norms which
are drawn from a particular legitimising structure. In the accounting
profession, certain ethical rules or norms draw their force not just from the
sanctions that can be imposed by the profession, but also because members of
the profession perceive the rules or norms as being appropriate or part of a
legitimating structure to which professionals should adhere. Although
structure is decomposed into these three parts, Giddens makes it clear that this
is for analytical purposes only. He emphasises that the structures have to be
taken together; that is, they are interdependent. He illustrates the
interrelatedness of the three structures by using the concept of ideology which
he explains as ``those asymmetries of domination which connect signification to
the legitimation of sectional interests'' (Giddens, 1984, p. 33). Although Gregson
(1989) criticises structuration theory for lacking relevance to empirical
research, Giddens (1989) has responded that it should be used as a sensitising
device in empirical work rather than to either confirm or disconfirm the theory
of structuration. Following the advice of Giddens (1989), we do not intend to
appropriate his concepts as a totality into our research. Furthermore, we
AAAJ believe that the degree of generality in his concepts needs to be addressed in
14,1 order to gain a handle on the analysis of our empirical data. To achieve this we
use the more concrete concepts advanced by Coombs et al. (1992) which, as they
admit, have been influenced by the work of Giddens, and which they used to
examine the importance of IT for the theory and practice of organisations.
Coombs et al. argue that the information dimension of information
114 communication technology[2] gives it a distinctive character in contrast to
other technologies. Information is intimately linked with power-knowledge
relations and the forms of subjectivity that reside therein. They suggest that
three concepts ± culture, control and competition ± provide additional insights
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for the study of the development and application of IT in organizations. They

argue that IT is rather more significant than many other technological
innovations in terms of the scope and scale of its impact on social and economic
Culture, control and competition can be connected to the duality of structure
as useful for identifying key dimensions of organizational practice. In Coombs
et al. (1992), culture recognizes that the organization is founded on the capacity
of human beings to construct a common sense of social reality ± technical tasks
cannot be undertaken without reference to the meanings (signification) which
underpin their formulation and guide their execution. This can be related to
structuration theory in the following way. Culture can be perceived to be part of
the structure of legitimation that agents draw on in their professional work
environment. How audit staff relate to IT depends on the meanings that are
attached to practices in an audit firm. These firms socialise their staff with
values such as ``adding value'', ``profit maximisation'', ``risk evaluation'',
``innovation'', and providing a ``quality service''. These form part of the accepted
vocabulary of the auditor and we would expect to see the rationale for the
introduction of audit automation expressed in terms of this vocabulary. We can
also see here how culture, as part of the structure of legitimation is applied
through the structure of signification. Although we have indicated that a
certain culture pervades audit firms, the acceptance of this within the firm
depends on the unequal distribution of material and symbolic resources
(structures of domination). This means some people in organizations have more
opportunity to define and secure mechanisms of organizational control. In the
case study by Coombs et al. (1992) of a financial services company they found
the cultural privileging of the market and competitive strategy subordinated
the power of IT specialists to the marketing specialists. This illustrates that
culture is not always a consensus of shared values and because it cannot be
disconnected from issues of control and competition we have discussed the
cultural issues of audit automation within our analysis of control and
Control can also become embedded within the organizational culture and,
therefore, be more readily accepted by individuals in the firm who identify with
that culture. Control, however, can be more overt, consisting of specific
practices and rules designed to ensure compliance within the firm. Both the
promotion of particular cultural norms and the introduction of control Audit
mechanisms are mediated through specific structures of domination operating automation as
in the audit firm. We would not wish to suggest that staff in audit firms are control
``cultural dopes'' who willingly accept the control procedures whatever form
they may take. Rather, it is acknowledged that staff may attempt to resist or
subvert mechanisms of control. This can be understood through Giddens'
dialectic of control. By this Giddens means that individuals always have some 115
resources or opportunities to resist the power of superiors. We would anticipate
that on the introduction of audit automation, individuals who do not identify
with the culture of the organisation or the control practices that are part of
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audit automation may adopt strategies to counter these.

Much of the recent literature on the audit profession has stressed the
increase in competitive pressure in the last few years (Willett and Page, 1996;
Sikka, 1997). It has been claimed that audit firms have had to adapt their
methods of operation and strategies in order to maintain their competitive
position. It is likely that the adoption of audit automation may be rationalised
as a response to those competitive pressures. In addition to external
competition there is also competition within audit firms as division competes
with division, audit manager with audit manager.
The discussion of the theoretical framework provides a structure for
identifying the issues for investigation in our interviews in audit firms.
Furthermore, it provides a means for analysing and evaluating the interview
data that links the experiences and practices of audit automation to previous
literature investigating the consequences of introducing IT on organizations. In
the next section we describe the research method used in our study.

Research method
As part of a broader study of the use and impact of IT in the audit process, we
conducted a series of interviews[4] with partners, managers, seniors, assistants
and IT specialists in two of the Big Five audit firms (hereinafter Firms A and
B). The purpose of these interviews was to investigate the extent to which their
work practices and behaviour had been influenced by audit automation[5].
An analysis of the interviewees is set out in Table I.
Firms A and B were approached with the assistance of the research
sponsors, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS). Initial
meetings, to agree the extent of participation and the number and type of staff
to be interviewed, were held between the research team and senior partners in

Firm A Firm B

Audit partners 3 2
Audit managers 3 5
Audit seniors/assistants 6 4 Table I.
IT specialists 5 5 Analysis of
Total 17 16 interviewees
AAAJ the firms concerned. The specific individuals for the interviews were selected
14,1 by negotiation between the researchers and contact partners in the firms. This
negotiation involved selecting staff with different work experiences, ages,
responsibilities and gender.
The interviews were conducted in London and three offices in South-East
England. The interviews were semi-structured, being based on a list of
116 questions prepared by the researchers, which was tailored to the level and
function of each interviewee[6], and sent to each participant in advance. Each
interviewee was normally interviewed by two of the researchers with no one
else from the audit firm present. Interviewees were informed that their
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responses were confidential and would not be disclosed to their firm. The
interviews normally lasted one to one-and-a-half hours, and were tape-recorded
with the permission of the participants. Quotations cited in the text are from
transcripts of these recordings. In the next section we discuss the findings from
the research.

Audit automation as control

In our analysis we concentrated on the concepts of culture, control and
competition identified by Coombs et al. as a means to understand audit
automation. Control is part of the regulatory framework governing the work
practices and behaviour of audit firms and their staff and in that sense may be
perceived as endemic within audit practice (Power, 1997). One of the ways in
which this concept of control manifests itself is through practices designed to
deliver a high quality standardised product, the audit opinion, at minimum cost.
It might be argued that it is external competition, in particular fee pressure,
which drives the creation of systematic control within the audit firm. The choice
of control mechanisms and their effectiveness in turn affects the ability of the
audit firm to compete successfully in the marketplace. It is within this context
that we explored in the interviews the twin concepts of control and competition
in relation to the introduction and use of audit automation in audit firms.

Control over the work process

Audit automation involves both new technology (in the usual sense) and IT,
both of which can enhance control of the audit process. Audit automation
allows the firm to more effectively enforce the firm's audit approach and
standard procedures on audit staff. For example, in our survey of audit firms
(Manson et al., 1997) we found considerable use of templates in the drafting of
management letters and letters of representation. One of the issues we explored
further in this paper is how IT is used as a control mechanism within the
quality assurance processes of the audit firm. Specifically, audit automation
can be used to ensure that audit staff follow the procedures laid down in
programmes and checklists:
A lot of things have to be done on the computer anyway. The checklists are all computerised
so you have to use those . . . In that respect there is less choice perhaps as to how you should
do things than there used to be (Audit senior, Firm B).
Audit managers and partners who have the responsibility for ensuring audit Audit
quality recognised the significance of the way in which IT can constrain the automation as
behaviour of audit fieldworkers. In this way audit automation tends to sustain control
particular structures of domination in the audit firm. Furthermore, for audit
managers and partners audit quality is one of the defining cultural elements of
an audit firm and, therefore, the use of audit automation by audit staff needs to
be consistent with the cultural value of audit quality. One audit manager argued 117
that audit automation improved the quality of work by ensuring completeness
and accuracy of work done. He said that audit automation had implications for:
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. . . quality of files, presentation of information, that sort of thing. Making sure things are
done properly; because a computer can be programmed very easily to check that everything
is done. Whereas if something is being done manually it's actually quite a tedious job to make
sure every single point is being addressed, whereas the computer can tell you (Audit
manager, Firm A).

However, it might be thought that the use of audit automation as a control

within the quality assurance process would inhibit the use of auditor
judgement that is so highly valued by audit firms. But this was not considered
to be the case, as illustrated by this comment:
[Audit automation] improves the quality of the thinking that our staff will be forced into; if it
is nothing else it is a discipline on the team (Audit partner, Firm A).

It is interesting to note that audit automation is seen as a disciplining activity

within the firm and hence a very explicit form of control over audit staff
behaviour. Although the audit managers and partners believe that audit
automation is compatible with creativity and judgement, there was some
evidence that audit staff themselves are so immersed in using computers in the
workplace that they may exhibit an over-dependence on the technology to the
extent they adopt a more mechanistic, and less judgmental, approach to their
audit work. This is typified by the following comment:
I can't really visualise doing the job without IT. It is intrinsic to the audit now; it is second
nature to reach for your computer (Audit senior, Firm B).

It has been suggested in the organizational literature (Starbuck and Webster,

1994) that playing with computers can enhance productivity even in professional
settings. This notion of play is likely to be regarded as anathema in auditing,
where there is an emphasis on adherence to standards, rules and specific modes
of behaviour. It is not surprising, therefore, that audit managers and partners
wish to eliminate what they see as behaviour outside the narrowly defined limits
acceptable from audit staff. An example of this view is the comment below:
There is obviously a need though to ensure that the people aren't using the computer for the
sake of using the computer. One of the problems that we saw is that staff might spend a great
deal of time doing fancy things. As a result of that we have looked to ensure that our training
and on-the-job training helps to cut that out (Audit manager, Firm A).

Bowker and Star (1994) argue that acceptance, and indeed overt recognition, of
the degree of ambiguity in technological tools may be necessary to effect
AAAJ productivity improvements and to ensure that individuals work co-operatively
14,1 with the technology. In the context of the audit process, ambiguity may
manifest itself as alternative ways of undertaking audit work. Although such
ambiguity may appear to be inconsistent with the use of standardised
procedures and rules, audit firms need to be careful about imposing too much
uniformity on the use of IT.
Control over audit staff
In the above we discussed how audit automation can control the work practices
of audit staff. In this section we will be concerned with how audit automation can
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more directly influence the control relationship between audit seniors and audit
managers/partners. One of the main ways in which the control relationship is
changed is by the use of information sharing through such facilities as e-mail.
The use of e-mail has enhanced communication between audit staff and, to a
certain extent, allows close supervision from a distance. As Robson and Cooper
(1989) suggest, such technological means of communication can assist the control
process by negating the need for direct personal contact without loosening
control. This is particularly the case where the audit files are held in an electronic
format by the audit team and are periodically (daily) copied on to a computer in
the office of the audit firm[7]. Once held here they are available to be inspected by
the audit manager/partner, who can access the files and pick over those parts
which are of interest. This closer involvement was perceived as an advantage, as
illustrated in the following quote:
There is certainly a benefit in communication. That's been an advantage to myself as
manager and for the partners as well. In one instance an issue was raised using INTAP and
the partner got the issue that evening. And the following morning the client phoned up at 9.00
a.m. and said, ``we've got this problem''. And the partner was able to say ``Oh yes, I know all
about that'', and already had the answer (Audit manager, Firm A).

The ability of audit managers/partners to exercise such control appeared to be

resented by some of the audit fieldworkers we interviewed. They considered
that the use of IT in the way described above had resulted in their losing some
control over their work. As one commented:
I mean the only way you could have control over that would be not to replicate[8] until you
want someone to look at what you've done. I mean that's the only way you can keep control
over [remote review]. I think that some people do think that this is a bit much, having people
reading your working papers before you've even finished writing them (Audit Senior, Firm A)

The process of control in audit firms does not just extend to the relationship
between audit seniors and audit managers/partners. The use of networked
computers by all audit staff on an engagement enables the audit senior to
control the work of the team. This close control was perceived by audit seniors
to bring advantages, as indicated below:
By means of sharing information over the network the person in charge can, whenever they
want to, if necessary on a daily basis, look up and see how everyone's getting on by reviewing
things, whatever state they have got to . . . On a regular basis I am able to check what's been
completed and monitor the stage people are at (Audit senior, Firm A).
The changes brought about in the reviewing process by audit automation, Audit
whilst corresponding to a change in the way the domination structure is automation as
facilitated, appear to enhance that structure because the intensity of control
surveillance by partners is increased. The general acceptance by staff of this
increased surveillance can be explained by the culture of discipline embedded
in audit firms and their work processes. Audit automation may add a further
layer of control over staff or bring about changes in the control relationships in 119
the audit firm. In this way, audit automation reinforces and re-creates the
structures of signification, legitimation and domination in audit firms.
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In addition to using IT to facilitate the reviewing of working papers,

auditors now make extensive use of e-mail. Although auditors did and do use
the telephone to communicate with each other and the client, e-mail has certain
advantages. First, it is not necessary for both parties to be present
simultaneously; e-mail messages can be sent, read and answered at the
convenience of the parties, as illustrated by this comment:
. . . e-mail probably gives me more access to a partner. I can send him [sic] an e-mail, and
typically I get a response back in five or ten minutes (Audit manager, Firm A).

Second, as Feldman (1987) suggests, e-mail can produce new communication in

large organisations, including between people who would not normally
communicate directly with one another. In our research we found some support
for the enlargement and enhancement of communication as a consequence of
extensive use of the e-mail system. Most interviewees, as illustrated below,
supported the extensive use of e-mail in communication.
I suppose a lot of my time is spent doing an awful lot by using e-mail. I'm probably sending
and receiving 30 or 40 e-mails a day. That covers work things and social things (Audit
manager, Firm A).

Furthermore, the anonymity and distancing effect of e-mails can help to

overcome some of the interpersonal barriers that might exist between
individuals both within and outside the audit firm.

Audit automation and deskilling of audit staff

Another aspect of control in the context of IT is the extent to which audit
automation takes away skills from the audit professional and substitutes rules
and procedures defined and enforced by management. This could be viewed as
an example of the labour process thesis exposited by Braverman (1974). It
could be said that by building skills from audit professionals into software,
audit automation promotes audit staff dependence upon the IT. As a
consequence, the degree of autonomy experienced by audit staff is reduced and
the control by management is reinforced. The previously professional auditor
is degraded to a technician, or he/she is replaced by less skilled labour
(Roslender et al., 1991). Against this it has been argued that the impact of
technology is increasing the skills required of professional accountants, which
contrasts with the deskilling effects in the industrial sector (Adler, 1987).
AAAJ The results of our questionnaire survey (Manson et al., 1997) did not lend
14,1 support to the thesis that the introduction of audit automation leads to
deskilling of professional audit staff. For example, the survey found that there
had been only a small increase in the number of accounting technicians in audit
firms. Indeed, the survey revealed that one of the most important effects of the
introduction of audit automation was that it enabled staff to have more time to
120 concentrate on technical and high risk areas. However, since this was the view
of the senior staff who responded to the survey we also wished to find out
whether junior audit staff held similar views. When asked if IT enabled them to
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spend more on the key areas of the audit process time most audit seniors and
audit assistants said that it did:
You've got less time doing the mundane things and more time actually doing the things for
which your judgement is required (Audit assistant, Firm B).

Most of those interviewed in the two audit firms did not believe that the
increasing use of audit automation would lead to deskilling of audit staff. There
was a conviction that IT was improving the ``lot of the audit fieldworker'',
especially the more junior, by automating boring and repetitive tasks. Asked
about the possible deskilling effect of IT, the comment below was illustrative of
the replies we received.
IT certainly does seem to reduce the amount of time that you are doing these mundane tasks.
I think it probably does allow you to think more about the issues (Audit senior, Firm B).

For most of the managers and partners we interviewed a clear distinction was
made between the use of audit automation as a useful aid in performing
relatively routine tasks and real auditing which involves professional
A computer can never replace my judgement. What it could do potentially is provide some
indicators of things that are out of line, that you've maybe missed, because the computer
tends to be more thorough than the human mind at actually processing batches of
information (Audit nanager, Firm A).

In most large firms all the audit staff are still graduates and we found no
evidence of an increase in the recruitment of non-graduates. Indeed, for the firm
which had introduced INTAP, it was usually considered important for users to
be trained to a high level of proficiency in auditing in order to use the package
effectively. Although our evidence would suggest that the introduction of audit
automation has not led to deskilling of audit staff, it may have had other
implications for employment. For example, it might be that audit firms hire
fewer staff as a consequence of the introduction of audit automation. However,
it is difficult to assess the particular impact of audit automation on employment
levels because there are many other factors that affect the recruitment of staff
by audit firms.
If we accept that audit staff are not being deskilled as a result of
implementing audit automation, it may still be the case that the need to acquire
what hitherto had been thought of as secretarial skills might be seen as
inappropriate work for professionals. The nature of the work that auditors Audit
perform is regarded as important in defining auditors as professionals and automation as
demonstrating the value of their work. Therefore, for some auditors it is the control
image that they portray in their work with clients which is paramount.
Concerns that audit staff may have about the nature of the work they perform
are more likely to be articulated in terms of the negative perceptions that clients
will have about their audit firm: 121
I mean [clients] would not look kindly on us if they thought I sat there typing all day. They
obviously think that I should be there using my professional judgement on more important
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issues (Audit senior, Firm A).

It may be argued that the above supports the argument that an overriding
concern in audit work is the portraying of certain perceived cultural values,
that is, the values of a professional person. Audit automation, because it
involves computer technology, is associated with being advanced and identifies
the audit firm as one that is ready to serve the needs of today's clients. There is
an undercurrent at work here, in that society strongly identifies, in a cultural
sense, that using IT is an indicator of being progressive and intellectually
Related to the above is the impact on the secretarial and clerical staff of
auditors preparing their own memos and sending out their own letters to
clients. The response of managers and partners may vary, with some just
accepting it,
I've had a complaint [from secretaries]. At one time there was a quiet week or two when they
were saying, ``Why is nobody giving us these documents to type.'' And they found out that we
were all doing them out on site (Audit senior, Firm A).

Just as we observed that audit automation could relieve audit staff of some
routine and tedious activities, there may be similar benefits to secretarial and
clerical staff. If an auditor types his/her own document instead of asking a
secretary to type it, there are opportunities for the secretary to do something
more demanding and rewarding, perhaps of an administrative nature, as
illustrated in this comment:
What I have found is, because there are certain tasks which the audit team are doing which
traditionally the secretaries had done, it means that I can give my secretary some of my
administration work, because she [sic] has more time available (Audit manager, Firm A).

Far from audit automation inevitably degrading work in audit firms, our
research suggests that both audit staff and secretarial staff can be relieved of at
least some of their routine and monotonous tasks and given opportunities to
undertake more highly skilled work.

Control and resistance

Dillard and Burris (1993) argue that in professional firms, the main concern of
management is not so much the deskilling or even reduction of white-collar
jobs but how to overcome the resistance of subordinates to the introduction of
AAAJ new technology. In our survey (Manson et al., 1997) we found that one of the
14,1 major problems facing audit firms introducing audit automation was a lack of
familiarity and understanding of IT by senior staff and partners. However, the
survey did not identify a lack of enthusiasm for audit automation by audit
fieldworkers as a problem. Our interviews explored in more depth the issue of
resistance to audit automation.
122 We found that junior staff accept audit automation more readily than senior
staff and firms even use the culture of IT as a ``selling point'' when recruiting
new graduates. What resistance there is comes from the top, from the older
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generation of partners. Resistance may sometimes take an extreme form, as

illustrated by the following comment:
There are some, the older partners, who will not use the PC at all. They will have their
secretary read their e-mail regularly, and print it out for them to read (Audit manager, Firm A).

In Giddens' term this may be seen as an example of the dialectic of control,

whereby the partner refuses to accept the control inherent in reading the e-mail
and circumvents it through adopting an alternative work practice.
Even where audit partners recognise that IT is increasingly used in the
office and at clients' premises for many tasks that used to be done manually,
there might be an attempt to downplay its importance. They see the computer
as simply a tool rather than something that adds value to the audit.
You've got a lot of auditors out there who are now used to using computers, and you can't just
take that away, They are going to use computers for electronic mail, writing memos . . . We're
using computers because they happen to be the modern tool at the moment, as the ball-pen
was 20 or 30 years ago (Audit partner, Firm B).

This comment by an experienced audit partner is interesting because it indicates

the extent to which he attaches specific meanings to the introduction of audit
automation. These meanings have been shaped by a mode of legitimation that
views audit as a problem solving tool whereas the current vocabulary is stated in
terms of adding value. We see how particular structures that have been
reproduced over many years condition individuals who are acclimatised to a
particular way of thinking to conceptualise audit automation in their own terms.
A simplistic view of the introduction of audit automation might be that it
would be grafted onto the existing methodology of the audit firm in order to
improve the efficiency with which it is put into effect. However, the use of IT,
and specific audit automation applications, may bring about changes in the
firm's methodology. Audit automation enables auditors to do things that could
not have been done without it, e.g. sophisticated statistical analysis. It can also
change the nature of the management of the audit process itself, e.g. allowing
remote access of files by partners.
We also found that junior staff readily embraced the new technology and
willingly explored the ways in which it could be used in the audit process.
Paradoxically, therefore, junior staff may develop greater knowledge and
awareness of the potential of IT than the partners in the firm. One of the
surprising (and hence unintended) consequences is that partners then develop Audit
strategies to constrain the behaviour of their junior staff, for example automation as
prohibiting the use of IT outside defined parameters. control
A labour process perspective (Braverman, 1974) would suggest that audit
automation, like other forms of IT, is imposed by senior management in part to
strengthen its control over subordinates who will resent, and may offer some
resistance to, its implementation. For example, e-mail communication may 123
change the form and nature of the control process over the audit staff. On the
one hand, the ability of audit managers and partners to have continuous access
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to audit staff gives an impression of increased control and surveillance. On the

other hand, e-mail's lack of direct contact, in contrast with telephone
communication, enables audit staff to adopt behaviours that can subvert this
control mechanism, for example leaving messages unanswered or giving
incomplete responses. This is an example of Giddens' dialectic of control in
operation within the context of audit automation, which is designed in part to
increase control over subordinates.

Competition and control

Coombs et al. (1992) identify two types of competition that are relevant to the
implementation of IT in the workplace. The first is external, market driven
competition, which is clearly relevant to the current state of the audit industry.
Our survey found that the larger audit firms were willing to spend significant
sums of money on development and implementation of audit automation. In the
interviews we sought to identify the extent to which this investment was
motivated by the need to remain competitive. We found that both audit firms
were concerned to demonstrate they were at the forefront of audit automation
for the purposes of improving and/or maintaining their competitive position in
the audit market, as the following quotation illustrates:
It is necessary to expend resources on IT so that clients can see that we're giving them the
same service as our competitors. And equally, so that our staff can see our firm is up with
everybody (Audit manager, Firm A).

Although it may seem obvious, the need for audit firms to demonstrate that
they are at the forefront of developments only arises because it is accepted as a
cultural norm in a capitalistic society that competition is beneficial and that
agents should actively strive to stay one step ahead of the opposition. Thus, the
conspicuous use of audit automation is an example of Giddens' interpretive
schemes, in this case the cultural norm of competitiveness.
Of concern to auditors in recent years is the need to demonstrate the value of
audit work (Davies, 1990). Some of our respondents recognised that using IT
was a means of showing clients that their audit added value, as can be seen in
the following quotation:
[The auditors] are being empowered with a tool that can add enormous value to their
relationship with their client and to the job they can do within the organisation (IT manager,
Firm A).
AAAJ From these quotes it can be seen that auditors perceive that it is important
14,1 to remain in the vanguard of IT developments if their firms are to remain
competitive. Another observation from both the above comments is the way
in which IT is perceived in symbolic terms as a means of conveying certain
messages about the firm to clients and its own staff. These messages make
visible certain cultural values which partners may believe are important in
124 the market for audit clients. In a highly competitive industry with a
standardised product, the audit report, there is an emphasis on
distinguishing firms by the individuality of their approach and style. One of
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the mechanisms for achieving this distinction is the overt use of the latest IT
in the audit process. Indeed, IT in the audit is used to define the audit firm as
modern, up-to-date and competitive, and this is in keeping with the cultural
message the partners of the audit firm wish to convey. The corollary of this
is that firms who are seen not to use IT to any great extent have fallen
behind in terms of best audit practice. This desire to promote the modernity
of their approach even extends to potential clients, as illustrated below:
There are some [potential] clients who will be quite impressed by the fact that we are at the
forefront of the technology, and then I would be inclined to mention it [in our tender
document] (Audit partner, Firm A).

On the other hand, there was scepticism from some audit staff about the
perceived importance of IT, whether as a tool to gain competitive advantage
or as part of the audit firm's image management. For example, several
managers and seniors did not think that clients paid very much attention to
the way the audit was conducted or the extent to which the auditor used IT.
It is likely that the emphasis placed on using audit automation to maintain a
competitive advantage in the marketplace was more rhetoric (Latour, 1987)
for internal and external consumption than a belief that it really had much
of an impact on a firm's productivity or ability to deliver a high quality
This rhetoric was also used for external consumption in the market for
graduate recruits. Several junior auditors mentioned that larger firms use their
use of IT as a ``selling point'' with potential employees. An audit senior in Firm
B recalled his experience on the university milk-round in the following terms.
I remember going to an interview for [a Big 5 firm] and they implied that every person had a
PC, that was the impression that I got.

Indeed, a few of our interviewees thought the use of IT by their firm had been
``oversold'' during the recruitment process. Their experience was that they
made less use of computers than they had been led to believe.
The second form of competition discussed by Coombs et al. (1992) is internal
competition, whereby individuals are encouraged to compete with each other
for rewards and advancement. For many of our respondents proficiency in IT
was becoming increasingly important when seeking promotion, although audit
staff were not expected to become computer experts:
I think to be IT literate is becoming more and more important for advancement. You don't Audit
need to become a whizz kid in PCs but as long as you use it as much as you need to, then it's
obviously a string to your bow (Audit senior, Firm A). automation as
It is clear that recruits to the Big Five audit firms expect to make extensive use
of IT in their work. Although we found no direct evidence that the importance
of IT in the audit process was having an impact on recruitment policy, it is
unlikely that students unable or unwilling to work with computers would be 125
recruited. Proficiency in the use of IT, alongside existing skills, has become a
requirement for all audit staff.
In summary, our study has revealed that the introduction of audit
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automation is an important consideration for audit firms in maintaining their

competitive position in the audit market. Furthermore, audit firms believe that
their use of IT is beneficial as a recruitment tool in attracting graduates to work
for them. Finally, audit staff themselves recognise the importance of acquiring
IT skills for advancement within their firms.

Concluding remarks
This paper has explored the impact of audit automation on the work processes
of two of the largest audit firms in the UK. In keeping with the increasing
number of writers who have found the work of Giddens helpful in
understanding accounting issues, we have made use of aspects of Giddens'
structuration theory. In particular, we have found his framework for
connecting structural schema to agency to be beneficial when exploring the
impact of audit automation in audit firms. This general conceptual framework
provided by Giddens has been operationalized by us in our research on audit
automation by using the three specific concepts of culture, control and
competition developed by Coombs et al. (1992) in a paper which examines the
importance of information technology for the theory and practice of
organisations. Similarly, these three concepts provided us with a framework for
analysing and understanding the development and application of audit
automation in audit firms. This paper is principally concerned with the
implications of the introduction and use of audit automation on the control
processes within audit firms. In addition, the paper investigated how audit
automation was used as a competitive tool in promoting the firm with clients.
Furthermore, we examined the extent to which auditors considered that
acquisition of IT skills was useful in the competition for personal advancement
within their audit firms.
Giddens' structuration theory provides a framework for understanding the
issues of audit automation investigated in this paper. The three structures,
signification, legitimation and domination as manifested in culture, control and
competition, are useful in understanding the changes within the audit firm
brought about by the introduction of audit automation. Signification structures
within the audit firm take the form of concepts, norms and symbols that reflect
the priorities of the partners, for example, quality of audit work and opinion,
efficiency with which the audit is undertaken, and competitiveness in the audit
AAAJ market. Information technology in general is associated with effectiveness,
14,1 efficiency and cost reduction, and audit automation is a tangible manifestation,
and a symbol, of this for the audit firm. Therefore, it is not surprising that audit
firms introduce audit automation because it reinforces visibly those attributes
they wish to convey to their clients, potential clients and graduate recruits.
Domination structures within the audit firm are mediated by the use of audit
126 automation since it increases the control by partners over other audit staff.
This is illustrated by the increased sharing of information facilitated by audit
automation and the consequent more intense reviewing by partners of work
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done by other audit staff. Another example whereby the domination structures
within audit firms are reinforced and reproduced is the way in which
increasing audit automation constrains the work behaviour of audit staff.
IT is sometimes perceived as having a moral or ethical dimension because of
its capacity to affect workers' lives. In particular, the introduction of IT may be
associated with redundancy and deskilling of workers. It is in this sense that
the introduction of audit automation may affect legitimation structures in audit
firms. If audit firms were seen to be using a technology that resulted in a
reduction in employment levels and a lowering of the skills expected of audit
staff, this might have consequences for the perception of the audit firm as a
constituent of a profession that depends for its existence on having a high
moral standing. Notwithstanding the above, the fact that we found little
evidence that audit staff were being deskilled as a consequence of the
introduction of audit automation suggests that audit automation is likely to
have limited implications for the legitimation structures of audit firms.
In our study we found that a number of partners believed the introduction of
audit automation had improved the quality of audit work undertaken.
However, our research revealed that, because of the technology of audit
automation, partners have become more closely involved with the day-to-day
work of the audit team, thus changing the structure of the firm. Therefore,
audit automation cannot be introduced into an audit firm to make it ``more
efficient'' without engendering changes in the firm's structure. Within Giddens'
framework it is specifically acknowledged that agents, in drawing upon the
rules and resources comprising structure, re-create those structures.
Both this study and our previous research have found that audit automation
has now become embedded in the audit process of large audit firms. This
pervasiveness of audit automation includes most aspects of planning,
controlling and recording within the audit process. Knights and Murray (1992)
found that the introduction of IT was a source of conflict within organizations
that led to dysfunctional behaviour on the part of staff. In contrast, it appears
from our study that audit automation has been assimilated into audit firms
with very little pain. Indeed, it can be argued that audit automation has now
become part of the culture of many audit firms. Part of the explanation for this
is that the use of audit automation can be rationalised by the audit firms in
terms of its ability to achieve the accepted professional and business goals of
improving quality and reducing cost. The recognition of the link between audit Audit
automation and the discourse of quality and cost reduction have helped to automation as
legitimise the use and spread of IT within the larger audit firms. control
From a labour process perspective (Braverman, 1974) it can be argued that
the purpose of audit automation is to increase control over both work processes
and audit staff. One of the characteristics of audit automation is the way in
which sharing of information can lead to increased surveillance of audit staff 127
by partners and managers. In our research we found that some audit staff,
notably audit seniors in the field, resented the greater control and surveillance
brought about through audit automation. However, we also found most staff,
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including audit seniors, considered information sharing to be beneficial to the

audit team because it increases efficiency. Another finding was that junior
audit staff most readily embraced audit automation and what little resistance
there was came from a small number of partners.
Another aspect of the labour process view of the use of IT in organisations is
that skills are transferred from subordinates who use the IT to management. In
the context of the audit firm this may result in a deskilling of the work of audit
staff, who consequently may resent the process and even resist its introduction.
We found little evidence of deskilling amongst professional audit staff, nor did
we find audit firms substituting accounting technicians for them. This may be
part of the explanation for the lack of resistance to audit automation by audit
staff. Related to this is the finding that, because audit staff are spending less
time on routine tasks, they are able to give more emphasis to judgemental and
high risk areas of the audit. Thus, audit automation should lead to
improvements in the quality of audit work.
The professional literature stresses the benefit of audit automation in
maintaining or improving the audit firm's competitive position by reducing
costs and/or enhancing quality. Our research indicated that whilst partners
believed this, they also emphasised other, less tangible benefits of audit
automation. For example, they cited the use of audit automation as one of the
factors in their competitive strategy to win both clients and recruits. It was also
evident that the audit firms perceived the extensive use of IT in the audit
process as a powerful symbol of their efficiency and of their position at the
forefront of technological advance.
Finally, our study has illustrated how audit automation has reduced barriers
within the audit firm, particularly as a result of e-mail communication across
different levels of staff. This is part of the recent trend in audit firms towards
greater informality in working relationships between staff. It is also consistent
with a move away from the traditional hierarchical forms and structures of
audit firms towards task-based organisational forms that are more responsive
to the business needs of their clients.

1. The research was undertaken by two Big Six audit firms. They are now two of the Big
Five and for simplicity we refer to them as Big Five firms throughout this paper. The sole
AAAJ focus of this research is the audit process and our organizational boundary is the audit
division of accounting firms. Throughout the auditing literature both in North America
14,1 and in Europe there is ambiguity about the organization which carries out audit work.
Strictly, there are no audit firms as such since auditing is a division, even a separate
business unit, within the large accounting firms. For brevity, however, we shall refer to the
audit firm.
2. Coombs et al. (1992) use the term ``information communication technology'' to emphasise
128 the information dimension of IT. While accepting this emphasis we use the more general
term information technology in this paper.
3. We would contend that culture is both a general and more abstract concept than either
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control or competition. Furthermore, it may be argued that the latter two terms are, at least
partially, constitutive of culture, although we accept that there are other aspects, such as
the ethical or moral climate in audit firms, that may also influence culture. We
acknowledge, however, that the culture in an organisation can influence, for example, the
nature of control processes in that organisation and each concept could be analysed in
terms of the other two terms.
4. We asked to speak to as broad a range of staff as possible, with differing experiences and
differing attitudes, but ultimately we could not choose precisely whom we could interview.
We prepared a set of separate scripted questions for each category of individual we
interviewed and all the interviews were taped and later transcribed.
5. Unlimited access to individuals and documentation within firms A and B would have been
preferable but this was not acceptable to the firms themselves.
6. A copy of the questionnaires used in the interviews may be obtained from the authors.
7. In this audit firm, Firm A, an integrated audit package (INTAP) was in use. This package
enables all computers of the audit team to be networked and for audit files to be
downloaded onto the firm's server where they could be accessed by other staff. For reasons
of confidentiality INTAP is not the actual name of the package.
8. Within the INTAP system replication is the saving of work done and making it available
on the network.

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Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal,
Vol. 13 No. 3, 2000
Shanta Shareel Kreshna Davie

An author has brought to our attention that her article ``Accounting for
imperialism: a case of British-imposed indigenous collaboration'', recently
published in this journal, inadvertently fails to acknowledge a manuscript,
``Imperialism and the Profession: The ACCA in the Empire'' (5th
Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Accounting Conference, Manchester, 7-9
July, 1997), by Marcia Annisette (then at University of Manchester ± currently
at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid). The reference, which would have been
made in relation to the discussion of the literature on imperialism on pages
332-4, was omitted in error.
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