Necessary evil or valued team member?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

meeting stock imageRelationships matter when auditors and IT specialists work together but they don’t always see their relationship the same way, or in a good way.

Working in teams is a common occurrence in many job settings, including in the audit profession. Like some settings, teams in an audit setting are often cross-functional and comprised of auditors as well as specialists from non-audit fields such as information technology (IT), tax, valuation, etc. The diversity in such teams has been referred to as a “double-edged sword” – varying backgrounds can help the team perform better than if everyone had the same background (and ideas), but when team members hail from different subgroups of origin it can mean team harmony and camaraderie is fragile and fleeting.

In this study, Tim Bauer, Assistant Professor, School of Accounting and Finance (SAF) and his colleague, Cassandra Estep (Emory University) interviewed auditors and IT specialists to examine the specific ways that coordination and communication thrives or falls apart when members of a collective (audit) team, who come from different subgroups, have good or difficult relationships with each other.

One telling sign that harmony is lacking in collective audit teams was respondents’ views of the “team.” Auditors claimed they saw it as one big team but didn't think IT specialists wanted to be a part of the team. IT specialists said the opposite; yes, they saw it as one big team too, but felt auditors didn't see them as part of the team. Essentially, both subgroups said they had an inclusive view but pointed the finger at the other for being exclusionary.

That’s not to say things are all doom and gloom. All the respondents talked about audit team examples where the relationship between auditors and IT specialists were good. The hallmark of such teams was frequent communication and mutual value and respect, with auditors and IT specialists working together frequently, especially in areas where it would be easy to pass work back and forth without talking – even though collaborating would help each subgroup better understand how to perform their own work. Nevertheless, respondents’ audit team examples of difficult relationships between auditors and IT specialists were worrisome. IT specialists felt like they were seen as a “necessary evil” such that auditors involved them in the audit as little as possible. Auditors complained that IT specialists rarely could be found or would usually communicate through email only. That audits got completed was quite the feat given the superficial ways the two subgroups collaborated – leaving files for each other or reviewing work without any discussion or help to understand what the other had done.

So how can cross-functional teams thrive, and truly act like one team, and avoid conflict or acting like two separate teams? The respondents talked about both tone at the top – leadership in the organization who set and follow through on a message of unity – and a push from the bottom – younger, lower-level employees who have more diverse experience and attitudes. Also, when in doubt, make time to talk it out; making it a habit to engage in dialogue helps avoid cones of silence from starting and it can deepen relationships.

Tim Bauer and Cassandra Estep, 2018. One Team or Two? Investigating Relationship Quality between Auditors and IT Specialists: Implications for Audit Team Identity and the Audit Process

Contemporary Accounting Research, Forthcoming https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3230745

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