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WebTrust and the “commercialistic auditor”: The unrealized vision of developing auditor trustworthiness in cyberspace

  • Michael Barrett
  • Yves Gendron
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    Purpose – This paper seeks to examine how auditors sought to establish their trustworthiness as trust providers on the internet; a vision which has remained largely unrealized. The investigation focuses on the WebTrust assurance project, launched by the North American accounting institutes to reinvigorate the alleged declining market for the expertise of external auditors. Design/methodology/approach – An in-depth longitudinal case study drew on a social theory of trust to examine the complexity of relations upon which trustworthiness of professional claims is predicated and investigate how commercialism has influenced the development of WebTrust. Findings – Analysis illustrates the critical role that experts have in professionalization processes in trusting (or not) their own systems of expertise. Also, face-to-face relationships continue to play a key role in establishing the trustworthiness of professionals and their systems of expertise – even in the cyberspace domain. Practical implications – It is argued that the WebTrust case and other commercialistic ventures sustained in accountancy provide a persuasive argument against the benefits of the free-market logic in professional domains. Professional associations should be more vigorous in defending professionalism. Originality/value – The research indicates that élite bodies of the profession, including professional associations, conceived of WebTrust mainly through a commercialistic lens – which is particularly revealing of the mindset that seemed to characterize a number of experienced professional accountants across North America shortly before the collapse of Andersen. The WebTrust saga illustrates how the profession has strayed from its ideals, or myths, of service ethic towards more focused efforts in developing “innovative” services based on a commercialistic logic.

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    Article provided by Emerald Group Publishing in its journal Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal.

    Volume (Year): 19 (2006)
    Issue (Month): 5 (September)
    Pages: 631-662

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    Handle: RePEc:eme:aaajpp:v:19:y:2006:i:5:p:631-662
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    1. Power, Michael, 1997. "Expertise and the construction of relevance: Accountants and environmental audit," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 22(2), pages 123-146, February.
    2. repec:spr:pharme:v:22:y:2004:i:4:p:225-244 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Arnold, Patricia J., 2005. "Disciplining domestic regulation: the World Trade Organization and the market for professional services," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 30(4), pages 299-330, May.
    4. Ballas, Apostoles A., 1998. "The creation of the auditing profession in Greece," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 23(8), pages 715-736, November.
    5. Pentland, Brian T., 1993. "Getting comfortable with the numbers: Auditing and the micro-production of macro-order," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 18(7-8), pages 605-620.
    6. Walker, Stephen P., 2004. "The genesis of professional organisation in English accountancy," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 29(2), pages 127-156, February.
    7. Barrett, Michael & Cooper, David J. & Jamal, Karim, 2005. "Globalization and the coordinating of work in multinational audits," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 30(1), pages 1-24, January.
    8. Sikka, Prem & Willmott, Hugh, 1995. "The power of "independence": defending and extending the jurisdiction of accounting in the United Kingdom," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 20(6), pages 547-581, August.
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