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International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

International Journal of Accounting


Information Systems

A dialogical framing of AIS–SEA design


Nivea Blackburn a, Judy Brown a, Jesse Dillard b,⁎, Val Hooper c
a
School of Accounting and Commercial Law, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
b
Queens University — Belfast, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
c
School of Information Management, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Previous literature has proposed dialogical accounting as a means


Received 15 October 2012 wherein accounting information systems can support competing, and
Received in revised form 3 October 2013 potentially incompatible, information needs of various interested
Accepted 10 October 2013
constituencies (Dillard and Yuthas, 2013). Here we extend that work
Available online 9 November 2013
by focusing on the design of social and environmental accounting
(SEA) information systems that take pluralism seriously. We theorize
Keywords:
the challenges of designing such systems wherein they are expected
Pluralism
Social and environmental accounting
to address the needs of multiple users with different interests that
Accounting information systems may emerge from different economic, social, political and/or cultural
Polylogic/dialogic accounting perspectives, as they relate, for example, to sustainability reporting,
Contentious framing ethical investment, participatory development studies and indige-
nous resource management. Using dialogic engagement, we attempt
to move beyond traditional, and often highly constrained, conceptu-
alizations of “stakeholder engagement” and propose a framework for
undertaking systems design that can facilitate high quality and
relevant SEA information systems that meet the needs of a wide
range of actual and/or potential users. We provide an example of how
the framework might be enacted using a framing methodology.
© 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

Accounting and accounting information systems (AIS) are traditionally conceptualized in functional and
linear terms, assuming a unified, well-understood organizational objective and well-defined users1 with clear
objectives (e.g. maximizing shareholder value).2 Traditional conceptualizations are, however, proving

⁎ Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: nivea.blackburn@gmail.com (N. Blackburn), Judy.Brown@vuw.ac.nz (J. Brown), jdillard@pdx.edu (J. Dillard),
Val.Hooper@vuw.ac.nz (V. Hooper)
1
The term “user” refers to both the user of the AIS and users of the information that the AIS provides both inside and outside an organization.
2
Maximizing shareholder value is the objective of both external investors, the primary focus of external reporting, as well as
management, who are the users of internal accounting information (e.g., Brown and Fraser (2006) and O'Dwyer (2002)).

1467-0895/$ – see front matter © 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.accinf.2013.10.003
84 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

increasingly problematic as practice reveals more pluralistic organizational and societal environments
wherein traditional accounting has arguably failed to meet the information needs of stakeholders. For
example, corporate social responsibility (CSR), multi-stakeholder governance, participatory development
initiatives, ethical investing and indigenous resource management systems are areas which: 1) require more
than an economics-based account, and 2) introduce greater uncertainty and complexity. Within these
pluralistic settings, multiple objectives, multiple (and not always well-defined) users and a multiplicity of
socio-political perspectives collide, surfacing antagonisms emerging from asymmetric power relations and
rival politics. Although traditional accounting has long held otherwise,3 it is increasingly evident that
accounting information and AIS cannot be regarded as a value free, objective representation of economic
reality (Brown, 2009; Dillard and Yuthas, 2013).
Contestations raised by stakeholders and their information needs in pluralistic environments bring calls to
rethink the design of accounting and accountability systems as well as the participation of stakeholders
therein (Gray, 2002; Brown and Fraser, 2006; Brown, 2009; Dillard and Roslender, 2011; Brown and Dillard,
2012, 2013). This is particularly evident in the case of social and environmental accounting (SEA) where there
are calls for new and more extensive AIS to support, inter alia, management decision making (e.g.
sustainability assessment tools), collaborative governance initiatives (e.g. water accounting, public–private
partnerships and “partnership” arrangements between employers/employees) and external reporting (e.g.
CSR reports, triple bottom line, and sustainability reports) (Frame and Brown, 2008). In some cases this is
backed by legislation and convention (e.g. good faith collective bargaining (Department of Labour, 2005) and
climate change),4 which grant users/stakeholders specific “information rights”.
The overarching focus of our research program5 is to address the pluralistic organizational and social
environments within which information users reside and to understand how SEA might be designed,
implemented, and evaluated in such a way as to provide relevant and quality information to a variety of
stakeholder contexts. In the current discussion, we focus on the design phase of SEA, leaving the
implementation and evaluation phases as areas to address in future work. Our objective is to initiate and
facilitate an ongoing conversation and debate regarding how we might rethink both the theorization and
practice of designing AIS for SEA so as to better assist: (i) users operating in pluralistic SEA environments;
and (ii) AIS designers in designing multi-perspectival SEA systems. We consider both the SEA and the
participatory IS literatures as well as the application of critical dialogic accounting. In the process, we
attempt to show how the “theory” and “practice” of SEA might be brought closer together so as to foster
participatory AIS–SEA that support high quality stakeholder engagement and facilitate social and
environmental accountability.
Design parameters specify the context within which a system is to be conceived. Only if these parameters
include a requirement to address the needs of stakeholders would the designer be appropriately attentive to
(internal and/or external) stakeholder engagement. We attempt to consider/theorize design and designing in
ways that would successfully implement the design parameter: to provide relevant, accurate, timely, and
understandable information for internal and external stakeholders. Reviewing the content of published CSR
reports and the publicly stated positions of various business organizations would suggest that stakeholder
engagement is a primary design criterion for AIS–SEA.6 Given the gap between the stated intentions and the
application of these systems (Brown, 2009; Cooper and Owen, 2007; Owen et al., 2001), then it would be useful
to assess the design process and to modify it so the outcomes more closely reflect the stated design parameters.
Earlier work (Dillard and Yuthas, 2013) proposes that Brown's (2009) eight dialogical principles can be
constructively applied in designing, implementing and evaluating AIS. We extend these ideas by considering
how the design of SEA-AIS might be enhanced by taking pluralism seriously in considering strategies for
engaging with interested constituencies as part of the design process, and illustrate their application using
Azad and Faraj's (2011a) contentious framing lens. How designers of AIS–SEA frame “SEA”, “stakeholder” and

3
For example, see Solomons (1991) and the International Accounting Standards Board's framework for the preparation and
presentation of financial statements (IASB, 2010).
4
See http://www.climatechange.govt.nz/carbon-reports/
5
This research is part of a broader research project on Dialogic Accounting: The Challenge of Taking Multiple Perspectives Seriously
that aims to develop accounting theory and practice that facilitates democratic dialogue among people with divergent socio-political
perspectives.
6
See Global Reporting Initiative (2013) for examples of the level of stakeholder engagements anticipated in social and
environmental reporting.
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 85

“stakeholder engagement” potentially plays a significant part in the operationalization of SEA practices. AIS
designers, through systems design, influence the level of transparency and accessibility of information for
stakeholders and thus the receptivity of AIS–SEA in meeting the needs of a plural society (albeit within
broader socio-environmental contexts). Little is known about how diversity plays out in terms of AIS designs
and designers, and the implications for how SEA is, or might be, theorized and practiced.7
The following discussion considers how we might better articulate the participatory design processes
so as to facilitate more democratic processes through dialogic versus monologic AIS–SEA and is organized
as follows. First, we consider the SEA literature on stakeholder engagement and AIS design. Second we
identify the issues raised in the IS literature on user participation and participatory design.8 Next, we
extend the work of Dillard and Yuthas (2013) by considering the enactment of system design within the
context of dialogic engagement. In Section 5, we discuss and illustrate the application of the dialogical
principles to AIS–SEA design using a framing methodology. Brief closing remarks extend an invitation to
continue the discussion and debate.

2. Stakeholder engagement and AIS–SEA design

SEA depicts a practice wherein information needs are unconventional, complex, controversial and
underdeveloped. This expanded accounting model extends what has traditionally been accepted as
accounting by addressing the needs of multiple interested groups with divergent economic, social,
political and cultural perspectives. Seemingly, stakeholder engagement is axiomatic within the SEA
community. However, the design and the design processes associated with facilitating AIS–SEA have not
been adequately addressed (Owen et al., 2001; Unerman and Bennett, 2004).

2.1. Inclusivity in the design process

Among those engaged in SEA research and practice, stakeholder dialog has been acclaimed as a
cornerstone of corporate social, environmental, economic and ethical governance and accountability
mechanisms…[O]nly through such consultation is it possible for managers to develop an understanding of
their stakeholders' expectations, and ‘good’ corporate governance and accountability should focus on
addressing these social, environmental, economic and ethical expectations (Unerman and Bennett, 2004,
p. 685).
There is a common belief that, without such engagement, SEA initiatives have a higher probability of
failure. Moreover, these developments in SEA have important, though under-researched, implications for
both the process of designing and the design of AIS.9 Since organizations are heavily dependent on
management information systems to support practices such as SEA, how stakeholders are engaged during
the design of such systems is crucial to the quality and relevance of the information a system produces.
Researchers have recognized this connection and have called for more participatory design, implemen-
tation, and evaluation that foster multi-perspectival dialog about organizational and societal issues
through better quality engagement with stakeholders (Adams and McNicholas, 2007; Bebbington et al.,
2007a, 2007b; Dey, 2007; Brown, 2009; Dillard and Roslender, 2011; Brown and Dillard, 2012, 2013;
Dillard and Yuthas, 2013).
While there is much rhetoric about the benefits of stakeholder engagement, SEA research suggests a
different reality. In practice, the standard of SEA and the level and quality of stakeholder engagement are

7
It should be noted that diversity (pluralism) is found not only between but also within particular groups with managers and
various stakeholder groups reporting a range of socio-political perspectives on SEA and stakeholder engagement. For example,
managers report distinctions between their “personal perspectives” and business practices (O'Dwyer, 2002) and trade unions are
divided on the value of “engagement” (Brown, 2000).
8
There is a distinction between Participatory Design literature which focuses on the social–political dimension of designing IS and
Design Science which focuses on the IT artifact and technical aspects of design (Hevner et al., 2004). We focus on the former
literature.
9
Unless otherwise stated, the terms “AIS” and “IS” refer to the IT artifact. AIS are considered to be a form of IS used for accounting
purposes and can be separate, or part of, a larger integrated system. Gelinas and Dull (2010, p. 14) define an AIS as an IS that
“collects, processes and reports information related to the financial aspects of business events”. When discussing IS for SEA, one can
reasonably view these systems as AIS.
86 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

regarded as disappointing at best. Studies report that organizations often do not engage stakeholders or, if they
do, do so in a superficial fashion (Brown, 2009). In practice stakeholder engagement is largely seen as “mere
rhetoric”. Organizations pay lip-service to standards with “pseudo-participation” resulting in academics and
stakeholder groups expressing frustration over both the poor quality of SEA (internal and external) reports and
cursory treatment of non-shareholder constituencies' information needs. A recurring complaint is that issues
are framed overwhelmingly from a “business case” approach, which follows from a narrow understanding of
CSR. Business case motives are predicated on enhancing shareholder/owner wealth and claim outcomes that
culminate in a “win–win” situation for business/stockholders and stakeholders.10 The dominance of the business
case approach has increased skepticism among stakeholders regarding traditional forms of engagement and SEA
reports (Brown and Fraser, 2006).
Recognizing the dissatisfaction with current reports and reporting systems, research continues to
investigate possibilities for more participatory approaches to SEA that might potentially lead to relevant
and quality information, both internally and externally (Owen et al., 2001). This includes initiatives based
not only on new consensually-based forms of accounting, but also on various proposals for forms of
counter-accounting (Dey, 2003; Gallhofer et al., 2006; Ruffing, 2007).

2.2. Who is included

The specification of who or what constitutes a stakeholder conditions the boundaries of inclusivity in
the design process. For example, Dey (2007) illustrates the motivations for, and implications of, excluding
certain internal stakeholders in the design and development of a social bookkeeping project at a UK-based
fair trade organization. Those excluded did not accept the system or its output claiming that the AIS–SEA
presented a simplified and misleading picture of relationships and activities. They argued that more
“subtle information” was needed to provide a more complete and accurate picture of the organization's
activities. The contestations reflected in the system design, development and evaluation were closely
related to political struggles within the organization that were manifested in the debate over the meaning
of the organization's core mission. Dey (2007) concluded that the resulting AIS–SEA facilitated a
controversial shift in strategic focus from “behaving like a charity” toward invoking a mere “commercial
Christianity”.
Operationally, the lack of inclusivity in the design process yielded three separate, though interconnected,
systems under the control of three different departments, resulting in no single or comparable SEA data set.
Effectively, the project ended up focused “on only one (AIS–SEA) to measure a narrow range of indicators for
an equally narrow range of stakeholders” (Dey, 2007, pp. 429–430). Adams (2002, p. 242) identified similar
issues associated with the lack of inclusivity wherein one organization had developed “no link at all between
the systems for collecting environmental and economic data…” and another organization that experienced
integration problems since “each product group requests information from sites in different ways and at
different time intervals resulting in a lot of duplication.” These studies seem to confirm the obvious. Not
engaging inclusively with stakeholders in the design of the AIS–SEA inhibits the development of systems that
provide relevant, accurate, timely, and understandable information for internal and external stakeholders.

2.3. What is legitimate

A second challenge in designing stakeholder informed SEA-AIS concerns what is recognized as a


legitimate contribution. There is evidence of a lacuna between the rhetoric of stakeholder engagement
(the stated beliefs that stakeholder engagement should be facilitated) and actual practices (giving
stakeholders a meaningful voice). Although there is little current research in this area regarding the design
of AIS–SEA, privileging business case imperatives frames the discussion so as to constrain the set of
permissible topics as well as to specify what counts as a legitimate argument. O'Dwyer (2002, p. 427), for
example, notes that the context within which management understands and articulates its social and
environmental responsibilities and its related reporting responsibilities is that of enlightened self-interest.
Arguments beyond such a perspective are dismissed as irrational and unrealistic. Larrinaga-Gonzalez and

10
Unfortunately, the outcome is usually win–win with the stakeholders not faring as well as the business/stockholder group.
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 87

Bebbington (2001) found that initiatives that are deemed good for the environment and society will only
be accepted by an organization if they also make good business sense.
Framing social and environmental responsibility within the context of the business case is “as important
for what it excludes as what it includes, because latent in the exclusions are possibilities for alternative
representations.” For example, “if corporate social responsibility elements and relationships are excluded
from the AIS, then representations of these considerations will not be explicitly included…” (Dillard, 2008, p.
22). Similarly, a “business case” interpretation helps to squeeze out “stakeholder-accountability” or “critical
theory” perspectives (Brown and Fraser, 2006).

2.4. Who determines who is included and what is legitimate

Who determines who is included and what is legitimate regarding SEA-AIS design follows from the
relative power of the various stakeholder groups. A significant challenge in designing SEA-AIS concerns
asymmetrical power relationships among the various interested parties. The perspectives of participating
stakeholders in a SEA project can be stifled if they have limited power/influence over meanings and
frames. For example in the fair trade organization discussed above, a “political struggle between interests
within the organization…influenced the development of social bookkeeping in the sense that the project
team was controlled by key members of the Board who were aligned with ‘New’ Traidcraft” (Dey, 2007, p.
441).11 Those with power to control resources were able to establish the cognitive frames (the business
case) wherein the problem was defined, debated and ultimately a course of action chosen. Once the frame
was established, the non-business case alternatives were no longer part of the decision set. The salient
issues were how to implement the business case most effectively. The information system provided
information consistent with this framing, motivating performance, and evaluation, in line with the
business case objectives, and, therefore, reinforcing this dominant frame.
O'Dwyer (2005), in his case study of an overseas aid agency, highlights how power asymmetries
discourage open communication:
For many, [the funding agency's] ‘unremitting power’ over its stakeholders operating in developing
countries rendered the pursuit of an open, critically focused dialogue impossible. It was repeatedly
highlighted by interviewees that as most of [agency's] key stakeholders were totally dependent on
[it] for assistance and resources they were unlikely to engage in a process where they might criticize
and potentially alienate “the only hand that feeds them” (IS1). Hence, the process was accused of
failing to “deal adequately with the power asymmetries involved” (ES1) (O'Dwyer, 2005, p. 285).

Brown (2009) suggests that in the absence of credible assurances from those in power, stakeholders
may be better off constructing new dialogic spaces of their own conducive to more multi-perspectival
approaches.
Generally, the extant SEA research suggests that organizations do not seriously engage with stakeholders
at the design stage of AIS–SEA development and are unable to provide adequate facilitating information even
in light of international guidelines or standards12 for doing so (Schon and Rein, 1994; Dey et al., 1995; Gray et
al., 1997; Adams, 2002; Gray, 2002; O'Dwyer, 2005; Thomson and Bebbington, 2005; Dey, 2007). In some
situations such as climate change reporting and collective bargaining, legislation has attempted to overcome
the limitations, with limited success. In other instances especially those characterized by significant power
differentials, various stakeholder groups have turned to independent “counter AIS–SEA”. Counter AIS–SEA
prepared by civil society groups and others provides alternative accounts to organization reports. SEA reports
provided directly by the organization to the public are viewed with skepticism as such information has been
filtered through the business case lens. Independent reports have been viewed as being more critical, credible
and therefore useful to stakeholders. Counter-accounts enable stakeholders to challenge organizations to
report in a more transparent manner and hold them accountable for their actions. However, they come with
their own set of challenges, namely obtaining access to business information/data (e.g. supplier information,

11
“New Traidcraft” was the term used to represent “the modernizing agenda that sought to banish what they saw as a barely
disguised anti-consumerist ideology from what ought to be a consumer-driven, commercial enterprise” (Dey, 2007, p. 441).
12
E.g., GRI (Isendahl et al., 2009), the Institute of Social and Ethical Account Ability's AA1000 (Dewulf et al., 2011).
88 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

production methods, workplace conditions). Since reporters of counter-accounts do not have ownership of
this “commercially sensitive” information, they must rely on collating information that is publicly available or
develop their own sources. For example, individuals or organizations (e.g. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth
and World Wildlife Fund) may visit sites and take photographs and videos first-hand.13
Conducting stakeholder engagement has not only been an ongoing challenge for organizations in SEA
but also is recognized in the wider IS literature. IS literature suggests that this difficulty lies in the
interpretation and implementation of the different facets to engagement/participation of stakeholders
such as: defining who is a stakeholder and which stakeholders to involve in the design, the level of
stakeholders' responsibility, the area of design and stage in which stakeholders participate, the level of
formality during participation and their influence on decision-making (as responsibility and influence are
not the same). This is summarized in Table 1.
Next, we explore further user participation and participatory design as reported in the IS literature.

3. User participation and participatory IS design

We found little IS literature that addresses SEA and reporting.14 However, there is an established body
of work addressing stakeholder engagement and systems design. Here, we briefly consider the applicable
components as they relate to stakeholder participation in system design. While the terms “user participation”
and “user involvement” have been used interchangeably in much of the literature, they are increasingly given
distinct meanings. Following Barki and Hartwick (1994), the term “user participation” refers to
development-related activities and behaviors of users and their representatives during the design and
development process, and “user involvement” refers to the subjective psychological state that reflects the
level of importance and personal relevance of the IS to users. We consider this distinction to be a useful one
and carry through with it in our theorizing of AIS–SEA design. We also recognize the interrelated nature of the
two. “User participation” can enhance “user involvement” and vice versa.

3.1. User participation

While participation is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for system success (Cavaye, 1995), it
seems to have acquired a status similar to the axiom of stakeholder engagement in SEA. User participation
is advocated by both academics and practitioners and is supported by best practice standards such as ISO
Standard 13407 (ISO, 1999), IEEE Standard 1233 (IEEE, 1998) and SWEBOK (Bourque et al., 2004). User
participation is seen as an important design procedure in that it gives designers access to business
information and facilitates the development of IS that meets the needs of its users.15 The level of
participation appears to be related to the development methodology applied (see Jun and King, 2008 for
synthesis of this literature). Without user participation in design, IS researchers have acknowledged that
users can become dissatisfied and resistant (Newman and Noble, 1990; Sauer, 1999; Schmidt et al., 2001;
Keil et al., 2002; Pan, 2005).
The majority of user participation studies are based on functionalist assumptions valuing efficiency and
effectiveness. Participation is employed primarily as a means to achieve certain ends such as: getting better
information on requirements; building better system specifications; overcoming resistance; and validating
design options. While all of these are valid concerns, other studies have suggested that academics and
practitioners could benefit from adopting an alternative philosophical base grounded on neohumanism.
“Neohumanism insists that participation is even more important for social sense-making to create shared
understandings and to meet the ethical imperatives of work arrangements in a democratic society”
(Hirschheim and Klein, 1994, p. 84). IS researchers informed by neohumanist ideas insist that emancipatory

13
These counter-accounts have supported stakeholder challenges to responsibility claims by corporations by including critical
comment in “silent” and “shadow” reports based on data drawn from public media or elsewhere (Dey, 2003; Gallhofer et al., 2006;
Ruffing, 2007; Unerman et al., 2007; O'Sullivan and O'Dwyer, 2009; Collison et al., 2010).
14
One exception is Brown et al. (2005).
15
Many IS researchers have outlined frameworks that articulate a variety of modes and consequences of user participation, such as
improved user satisfaction and system use (Franz and Robey, 1986; Doll and Torkzadeh, 1989; DeLone and McLean, 1992; Barki and
Hartwick, 1994; Hunton and Price, 1994). A review of this literature is beyond the scope of this study. See Markus and Mao's (2004)
for a synthesis of the user participation literature.
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 89

Table 1
Dimensions of stakeholder participation and possible values.

Dimensions of user participationa Possible values

Type All users, representatives of users


Degree Advisory capacity, sign-off responsibility, part of team, full responsibility
Content Technical design, social and technical design
Extent Project definition, requirements definition, building, testing
Formality Formal, informal
Influence Input ignored, contribution considered, input taken seriously

(Cavaye, 1995, p. 312).


a
While the tern “user” is used here, we interpret “user” as equivalent to “stakeholder”.

principles be at the center of user participation (Lyytinen and Klein, 1985; Lyytinen and Hirschheim, 1988;
Lee, 1991; Avison et al., 1993).16 Some of these earlier approaches have been criticized for their utopian
nature and lack of attention to power and politics and have since been supplemented by a range of critical
theory approaches (see Brooke, 2002 for an overview).

3.2. Participatory IS design

IS literature on participatory design (PD) provides some insights into the general question of how
organizations may better engage with users during the design of IS in SEA. PD is a user-focused concept
that came about to facilitate the development of IS wherein users are actively involved throughout the
various stages of development in order to address their needs and concerns.17 Users provide ongoing
feedback to IS designers during the design and development of IS prototypes (Levinger, 1998). According
to Wanyama and Zheng (2010, p. 72) “design knowledge exists in all those potentially affected by a
design, and they can all contribute to design a better product” regardless of whether IS designers are
knowledgeable in the business' requirements. PD entails a social process of mutual instruction, where
designers, IS users and those affected by the IS learn from each other. It is concerned “with a more human,
creative and effective relationship between those involved in technology's design and its use, and in that
way between technology and the human activities that provide technological systems with their reason of
being” (Suchman, 1993, p. 8).
However, PD literature has found that in many PD projects it is not feasible or possible to include all those
affected by the IS in determining the IS design. In these situations, it is recommended that the choice of
participants, forms of participation and co-operation between IS designers and users be carefully considered
and negotiated. Moreover, project methods, tools and techniques need to be selected to support participation
(Kensing and Blomberg, 1998). “Effective technical and human design of computer-based systems” (ETHICS)
(Mumford, 1983; Hirschheim and Klein, 1994), “multiview” (Avison, 1990), “joint application design” (JAD)
(Carmel et al., 1993; Davidson, 1999), “prototyping” (Baskerville and Stage, 1996; Beynon-Davies et al.,
1999), and “information engineering” (IE) (Beath and Orlikowski, 1994) are some examples of systems
development methodologies which view user participation as a critical component of the design of IS.
From our review we conclude that there is a relatively significant and growing literature on SEA and
the role(s) of stakeholder engagement. However, little consideration has been given to what role, if any,
stakeholder engagement plays, or might play, in the design of AIS–SEA. Although there is a well-developed
literature on IS user participation and participatory design, previous studies have not addressed its
implications for SEA. AIS literature echoes the rhetoric of user participation.18 However current AIS
literature on user participation is sparse and studies rarely comment on approaches that might facilitate
more participatory approaches to AIS design. “AIS projects are predominantly specified in technical terms,

16
The literatures in this section are seminal and have been cited by more recent studies on user participation and participatory
design.
17
The concept of PD has been employed in a variety of areas including manufacturing (Kensing and Blomberg, 1998), engineering
(Pries-Heje and Dittrich, 2009), healthcare (Hartswood et al., 2001; Simonsen and Hertzum, 2008) and manufacturing (Wanyama
and Zheng, 2010).
18
Asserting that accountants possess expert knowledge in accounting/accountability practices which are required to develop
quality IS (Dillard, 2000; Gelinas and Dull, 2010).
90 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

with little consideration for their broader implications for practice and even less for the socio-political
impacts” (Dillard, 2008, p. 26). PD techniques are useful for the development of AIS because SEA is a new
area where there is still much to be learned and opportunities to innovate current SEA practice (without
discounting the ethical imperative of participation). Furthermore, the idea of involving individuals
potentially affected by the AIS is also consistent with calls in SEA for greater dialog with stakeholders,
facilitating the development of multi-perspectival AIS. Next, we consider the issues discussed above
through the lens of dialogical accounting and contentious framing, both of which focus on contestations of
meanings and attempt to incorporate the wider political context.

4. Dialogic accounting

Dialogic accounting addresses the pluralistic nature of SEA, highlighting the importance of stakeholder
engagement in designing information systems for both internal and external use. SEA and critical accounting
commentators have argued that mainstream accounting is very limited in its ability to incorporate different
perspectives. For example, Cooper and Sherer (1984) argue that mainstream accounting is infused with the
assumptions of capitalism, Chua (1986) that it is “monolingual” and Brown (2009) that it is “notably
monologic in approach”. By taking a dialogic approach, a variety of perspectives may be voiced. Applying this
theory and approach to the design of AIS–SEA, we address the quality/content issues of SEA information as
discussed in previous sections, in particular, the privileging of “business case” approaches.
A number of writers have theorized and argued for more democratic and participatory forms of
accounting. Recent literature has drawn on authors such as Freire, Bakhtin, Giroux, Habermas, Laclau and
Mouffe exploring different facets of SEA (Thomson and Bebbington, 2004, 2005; Bebbington et al., 2007a,
2007b; Frame and Brown, 2008; Dillard and Roslender, 2011; Brown and Dillard, 2012, 2013; Dillard and
Yuthas, 2013). Some writers, following Habermas, favor deliberative models of participatory democracy
aimed at working toward a consensus for new integrated forms of accounting. Brown (2009), drawing on
contemporary political theory, calls for a more pluralistic approach based on agonistic democracy. She
argues that such an approach more adequately addresses the conflictual aspects of pluralism19 and, with
its roots in critical pluralism, also attends to issues of power.20
Agonistic democracy holds that although we are not required to accept views with which we do not
agree or may be indifferent toward, we should treat those who hold them as “legitimate opponents”
(Mouffe, 2000, p. 15). Agonistic democracy also looks for new forms of social organization that enable
currently marginalized groups to participate more effectively in the (re)construction of social reality. This
is not to say that we can eliminate power or power differentials but instead attempt to “constitute forms of
power which are compatible with [our] democratic values” (Mouffe, 1995, p. 1536).
The objective of this dialogic/pluralist approach is to discuss issues regarding AIS–SEA design with
awareness of power dynamics and openness to ideological differences. As a guide for implementing a
dialogical approach, Brown (2009) develops a conceptual framework which consists of eight key dialogic
principles:

1. Recognize multiple ideological orientations


2. Avoid monetary reductionism
3. Be open about the subjective and contestable nature of calculations
4. Enable accessibility for non-experts
5. Ensure effective participatory processes
6. Be attentive to power relations
7. Recognize the transformative potential of dialogic accounting
8. Resist new forms of monologism

We illustrate differences between a traditional monologic and dialogic approach in AIS–SEA design
and, following Dillard and Yuthas (2013), present examples of how Brown's (2009) eight principles could
be enacted in designing AIS–SEA. The following discussion is summarized in Table 2.

19
Pluralism recognizes that social relations involve both cooperative and conflictual aspects.
20
Earlier versions of SEA pluralist thought such as “stakeholder theory” have been heavily criticized by critical theorists (Tinker et
al., 1991).
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 91

Table 2
Monological and dialogical AIS–SEA design.

Dialogic principles Monologic AIS–SEA design Dialogic AIS–SEA design Enactment of principles
(Dillard
and Yuthas, 2013)

Recognize multiple AIS–SEA are seen as a tool to AIS–SEA are not and cannot be Recognition and specification
ideological support neutral, value-free rep- neutral or value-free, but rather of
orientations resentations. Narrow view of support value-based practices multiple perspectives through
stakeholders and little or no and evaluations. AIS–SEA should broad-based stakeholder
acknowledgment of different enable discussion and debate analysis. Develop alternative
socio-political perspectives. among a diverse range of stake- designs following from the
Consensus about values holders and from a variety of multiple perspectives.
(e.g. advancing shareholder socio-political perspectives.
wealth) is assumed.
Avoid monetary AIS–SEA support the almost IS captures and presents Recognition of the narrowness
reductionism exclusive representation of information via quantitative and of traditional financial
monetary information. Value is qualitative modes. Includes both reporting.
articulated primarily in monetary and non-monetary Determine alternative
monetary terms and calculations data. This may include visual information needs.
(e.g. cost benefit analysis, social representations such as photo- Develop a plan for gathering
and environmental impacts are graphs and videos where appro- the information.
converted to monetary terms). priate (e.g. to show the impacts Incorporate the information
of environmental activity). into IS design.
Be open about the Commitment to providing Aware of the contestable nature Recognize the subjective
subjective and “neutral” and “value-free” of calculations. nature of views on “truth and
contestable nature accounts based on the Institutionalized “best practices” fairness” — what is accounted
of calculations acceptance of a single objective are subjective. The term “best” is for, how it is accounted, for
reality. relative as there is no one and on whose terms.
Highly institutionalized objective solution that is right Develop procedures for
scientific approach, calculations for every situation. monitoring and reporting on
based on mathematically Transparent about calculations the processes in place
quantifiable terms. and the assumptions that create/ indicating asymmetric power
Assumptions/definitions are define them. Also deal openly relationships and their impact.
taken-for-granted. with scientific uncertainty (e.g. Make it easier to problematize
reporting estimates in terms of “taken for granted” framings.
ranges rather than single
numbers).
Enable Expertise Reliance on technology experts Stakeholders provide expert Representations, rules, and
accessibility to design AIS–SEA. knowledge in their own field implications understandable
for Users/stakeholders play a lesser which is genuinely taken into to all participants.
non-experts role in design. Design is not account by AIS–SEA designers. Develop a forum/process
accessible to “non-experts” due The designers communicate in a through which alternative
to limited IT knowledge (what language that is accessible to perspectives can be explained
can/cannot be done and the stakeholders. Implications of and/or discussions
amount of time/money it design are clearly undertaken.
requires). communicated to stakeholders.
The designers aim to develop
systems that cohere with the
values/assumptions of multiple
stakeholders (and thus, where
appropriate, enable the
construction of
counter-accounts).
Quality Focus on adherence to software Participatory review and
assurance development process. acceptance by both experts and
Technology audits conducted by non-experts.
qualified professionals.
Ensure Institutionalized processes Genuine stakeholder Develop and institutionalize
effective facilitate only symbolic/pseudo participation with participatory processes based
participatory participation. Perspectives of institutionalized processes that on agonistic pluralism and
processes dominant stakeholders include affected parties, social critical dialogics.
privileged. groups and other interested

(continued on next page)


92 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

Table 2 (continued)

Dialogic principles Monologic AIS–SEA design Dialogic AIS–SEA design Enactment of principles
(Dillard
and Yuthas, 2013)

Information on design and its stakeholders during design.


implications is limited and not AIS–SEA design documents are
made available to interested made available and
stakeholders. understandable to stakeholders.
AIS–SEA design documents are
written for expert professionals
making it difficult for
non-experts to understand.
Be attentive to power Expert AIS–SEA designers are Recognizes formal, informal Develop systems focused on
relations privileged. and institutionalized power alternative power
Does not consider the narrow structures and their impact on arrangements (e.g. owners,
focus of technical “expert” AIS–SEA design. workers, environmental,
knowledge as a limitation in the Includes both socially dominant community, customers,
ability to design AIS–SEA. and minority stakeholders suppliers, civil society).
Does not recognize the impact during design and highlights
of power asymmetries on dominating and marginalized
systems design and practices frames.
that result.
Recognize the Socially powerful groups AIS–SEA design is an area for Recognize the potential for
transformative (consciously or unconsciously) encouraging and learning from ongoing, interactive
potential of use AIS–SEA to advance their participatory/dialogic practices. discussions among affected
dialogic interests. Stakeholders are Discussion, debate and ongoing groups.
accounting “managed” rather than reflection on whether IS are Develop dialogic processes
“engaged”. Dialog is not valued satisfying current stakeholder that
in the design process needs and considering ensure ongoing engagement,
alternatives. evaluation, and accountability.
Resist new forms Unwilling to challenge the Constantly challenging the Maintain the contestability of
of monologism neo-classical economic assump- status quo, suggesting the emerging dialog.
tions upon which AIS–SEA de- alternative AIS–SEA designs as a Develop and maintain
sign is based. Emphasis on the means of monitoring and multiple and competing
technical/instrumental use of continuing discussion and systems.
AIS–SEA and the designer's debate.
technical expertise.

4.1. Recognize multiple ideological orientations

The first principle in implementing a dialogical approach is to recognize that in a design space with multiple
actors, there are likely to be multiple ideological orientations. In enacting this principle, the designer recognizes
and specifies the multiple perspectives through broad-based stakeholder analysis. A monologic AIS–SEA design
views the information system as a tool for providing neutral, value-free representations to be used as inputs to
economic decision processes. This perspective holds a narrow view of stakeholders, provides little or no
acknowledgment of different socio-political perspectives, and generally assumes a consensus that the primary
value to be pursued is advancing shareholder/owner wealth. A dialogical AIS–SEA design views the system as
unavoidably value laden and to be designed so as to support value based practices and evaluations, enabling
discussion and debate among a diverse range of stakeholders and from a variety of socio-political perspectives.
Enacting this principle motivates the development of alternative designs following from the multiple
perspectives and requires that the designer consider alternative objectives beyond those embedded within the
currently dominant business case.

4.2. Avoid monetary reductionism

The second principle is to avoid monetary reductionism, recognizing the limitations of representing social
and environmental activities and consequences primarily in financial terms. A traditional monological AIS–
SEA design supports an almost exclusive monetary representation. Value is expressed in monetary terms and
provides the basis for calculations such as cost benefit analysis. Social and environmental impacts are
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 93

conveyed in monetary terms consistent with the business case.21 A dialogical design attempts to gather and
present information using both quantitative and qualitative representations and may include nontraditional
media such as visual representations and storytelling. Enacting this principle asks that the designer recognize
the narrowness of traditional financial based reporting and be imaginative and purposeful in determining
alternative information needs as they might relate to the different ideological perspectives previously
identified. The design process would need to develop a viable plan for gathering the requisite information and
incorporating these processes into the system design.

4.3. Be open about the subjective nature of calculations

The third principle is a generalized statement of the second and recognizes the need for the designer to be
open about the subjective and contestable nature of calculations. A monologic design is committed to
providing neutral and value-free accounts based on the presumption of a singular objective reality. Within
what is seen as an institutionalized, scientific approach, mathematical calculations using objective inputs
provide accurate quantifiable outputs, with the associated assumptions and definitions unquestioned. A
dialogical design is aware of the contestable nature of the calculations. The claim of institutional “best
practices” is recognized as subjective, with no one “objective” solution applicable in every situation. The
designer acknowledges the calculations employed and the associated assumptions and definitions and deals
openly with associated scientific uncertainty. Enacting this principle, the designer recognizes the subjective
nature of the views on “truth and fairness” as it depends on what is accounted for, how it is accounted for, and
on whose terms. The design needs to develop procedures for monitoring and reporting on the processes in
place indicating asymmetrical power relationships and their impact on the design process, making it easier to
problematize the “taken for granted” framings grounded in purportedly objective calculations.

4.4. Enable accessibility for non-experts

The fourth principle states that the representations, decision rules, and implications be understandable to
all participants, including non-experts. Monologic design relies on technology experts to design AIS–SEA with
user/stakeholders playing, at best, a limited role in the design process. Participants are required to possess IT
expertise in order to provide relevant input. Quality assurance focuses on adherence to software development
processes and is accessed through technology audits conducted by qualified professionals. Dialogic design
recognizes that a variety of stakeholders can provide (expert) knowledge in their respective fields, and this
input is taken into account by the system designer. The designers communicate in a language that is
accessible to the particular stakeholder group being addressed. The implications of design are clearly
communicated to the various stakeholder groups, and the system is developed to cohere with the values and
assumptions of these groups. Ideally, such a process would enable each group to develop unique outputs that
satisfy their specific needs. Quality is accessed through participatory review and acceptance by both experts
and non-experts. In enacting this principle, the designer attempts to make representations, rules and
implications understandable to all participants. This may require developing fora or processes whereby
alternative perspectives can be explained and in which discussion and debate can be engaged.

4.5. Ensure effective participatory processes

The fifth principle is to ensure effective participatory processes. Monologic design processes are generally
institutionalized processes that facilitate symbolic/pseudo participation which preserves the dominance of
shareholders/owners. Information on design and its implications is limited and not made available to
interested stakeholders. System design documents are written for experts/professionals making it difficult for
non-experts to understand. Dialogic design facilitates genuine stakeholder participation with institutionalized

21
A number of academics have focused on trying to develop SEA models that convert social and environmental impacts into
monetary terms in an effort to create a “dialogue” with business in its own language. This includes the Sustainability Assessment
Model (SAM) — which was specifically developed as a dialogic accounting tool. However, the developers themselves recognize it is
open to charges of monetary reductionism (Bebbington et al., 2007a; see also Brown, 2009 on the potential for more multi-
perspectival SAMs).
94 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

processes that include affected parties, social groups and other interested stakeholders. The design documents
are made available and understandable to stakeholders. Enacting this principle, the designer develops and
implements participatory processes based on agonistic pluralism and critical dialogics.

4.6. Be attentive to power relationships

The sixth principle recognizes the importance of power relationships in influencing the design of AIS–
SEA. A monological perspective does not recognize the impact of power asymmetries on the design of AIS–
SEA and the resulting practices. Expert AIS–SEA designers are privileged, a position that neglects the
limiting effects that the narrow focus of technical expert knowledge has on designing AIS–SEA. A dialogic
conceptualization of design recognizes formal, informal, and institutionalized power structures and their
impact on system design. A conscious and directed effort is made to highlight dominant and marginalized
frames and to include both dominant and minority stakeholders in the design process. Enacting principle
six, the designer recognizes the power asymmetries and attempts to provide alternatives that take into
account the various power arrangements that exist among the various groups such as owners, workers,
the environment, the community, suppliers, customers, and civil society.

4.7. Recognize the transformative potential of dialogical accounting

Principle seven points to the transformative potential of dialogical accounting. Within a monological
design context, socially powerful groups, consciously or unconsciously, use AIS–SEA to advance their
interests. Stakeholders are “managed” rather than engaged, and dialog is not valued in the design other than
as part of a stakeholder management program. Dialogic design encourages and learns from participatory/
dialogical practices. Discussion, debate and ongoing reflection are seen as critical to satisfying current
stakeholder needs and conceiving and evaluating alternative designs and design processes. Enacting this
principle the designer recognizes the potential for ongoing, interactive dialog among affected groups and
attempts to develop dialogic processes that ensure ongoing engagement, evaluation and accountability.

4.8. Resist new forms of monologism

The eighth principle states that care must the taken not to replace one dominating ideology with another,
even if the other has arisen out of a dialogic process. The prevailing monologic design context is unwilling to
challenge the neo-classical economic assumptions upon which AIS–SEA design is based. The emphasis is not
on questioning the validity of the design or the process but is on the technical/instrumental use of AIS–SEA
and the extent of the designer's technical expertise. Dialogic design constantly challenges the status quo,
suggesting alternative AIS–SEA designs as a means of monitoring and facilitating discussion and debate. The
designer enacts this principle by preserving the contestability of emerging dialog and developing and
maintaining multiple and competing systems. Next, we consider how we might go about implementing these
ideas in a design situation.

5. Framing AIS–SEA design

While recognizing their limitations, we propose that framing (re-presenting, Dillard, 2008) is a useful
construct implementing a dialogical frame for AIS–SEA design. In doing so, we propose and briefly
illustrate a method for explicitly articulating enactment processes as they might apply within the AIS–SEA
system design context.

5.1. Framing

Dialogic accounting is based on the assumption that human beings collectively construct reality and
that the relationship between accounting and the social world is mutually constitutive. Therefore,
studying meaning in its wider socio-political context is crucial in order to better understand where ideas
(e.g. about SEA) come from and how individuals respond differently in different settings. Drawing on both
interpretivism and critical theory, dialogic accounting aims to not only surface frames and metaphors
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 95

through exploration of the way people narrate their worlds, but also bring out and address commonalities and
differences in values, interests and socio-political perspectives. It is presumed that accounting can never be
apolitical or value free since it is based on contestable individual or shared views. In a liberal democratic
society, political contestation and conflict should be accepted as central to democratic processes and not
necessarily viewed as negative (Mouffe, 2000). To this end, communication across divergent perspectives is
seen to be desirable as multi-perspectival dialog has the potential to encourage organizations to reflect, learn
and transform/change current practices (Bebbington et al., 2007b; Brown, 2009).
Framing provides a way of describing how dialogical principles might be employed, in this case, for AIS–
SEA design.22 Goffman (1974) conceptualized framing as the process of drawing virtual boundaries, much
like a picture frame, wherein actors make sense of their world, allowing humans to “locate, perceive, identify,
and label” an infinite number of occurrences and “provide background understanding for events that
incorporate the will, aim and controlling effort of…a human being” (p. 21). The resulting representation is a
relatively stable, associative interpretive scheme (schemata) that allows the observer to assign meaning to
what would otherwise be an incomprehensible array of stimuli.
Context plays a significant role in the way actors represent, respond to, and solve problems (Hoffman
and Ventresca, 1999).23 Goffman (1974) suggests that, taken as a whole, the frames through which a
collective group of actors perceives the world constitutes the group's culture. This culture forms as the
frames become institutionalized in various ways and provides the context for understanding and action by
its members.24
The way in which actors frame issues is crucial to the potentiality of actors communicating and gaining
common understandings. Fragmented or diverging frames can prevent mutual understanding or extend/
delay the decision-making process (Schon and Rein, 1994; Kaplan, 2008; Dewulf et al., 2011). On the other
hand, the connection between frames can generate motivation and commitment among actors for collective
action. At the same time, differing frames can benefit diversity in decision-making processes as actors share
insights and different ideas possibly leading to expanded participation and more innovative solutions
(Dewulf et al., 2011). The dialogic perspective seeks to acknowledge divergent viewpoints (frames) and foster
democratic debate, recognizing that transformation may involve substantive modifications in institutional-
ized framings (Brown, 2009).
Frames are seen to influence AIS design, and in turn, accounting and accountability practices (Dillard,
2008), though the area has not been adequately considered in the AIS literature. Within the IS literature,
analyzing frames and the framing processes25 have been used to study the organizational practice of IS
design (Faraj et al., 2004; Azad and Samer, 2007; Azad and Faraj, 2011a), an undertaking that can be
contentious and characterized by uncertainty regarding a problem specification or solution in which
multiple actors have a stake.26 To date, framing has not been used to investigate the different frames in
AIS–SEA or stakeholder engagement. As noted earlier, AIS has not addressed SEA. Previous IS or AIS studies
do not appear to question the quality or extent of participation as the research focuses more on the
framing process and how participants in this process influence the design of IS. An exception is Azad and
Faraj's (2011a) interpretive study focusing on the enactment of various interpretations/meanings related

22
For this discussion, we have opted for Goffman's (1974) original conceptualizations. However, framing has been defined in
various ways in the literature. Entman (1993), who identifies commonalities amongst the various uses of framing, defines it as “to
select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a
particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (p. 52).
Scheufele (2000), on the other hand, regards framing theory as a “prospect theory”. In this conceptualization it is assumed that “subtle
changes in the wording of the description of a situation might affect how audience members interpret this situation” (p. 309) where
interpretive schemes influence interpretation as opposed to actors willfully making certain aspects of an issue more salient. As recognized
by Gitlin (1980), framing does not necessarily occur out of conscious decisions and can thus be unintentional.
23
As Creed et al. (2002a, p. 49, 2002b) argue “texts are meaningless outside the context in which they are deployed, so the best
frame analyses often take place within the context of programs of research focusing on specific actors, settings or issues.”
24
Common frames do not necessarily ensure uniform response to similar stimuli. Researchers have pointed to the different
backgrounds of actors to explain why actors (whether intentionally or unintentionally) direct attention to different aspects of an
identical situation, describing “what is” or “what should be” in ways that can lead to different intentions or outcomes.
25
Framing and frame analysis have been undertaken in a variety of fields including social movements, media studies and politics
(Gitlin, 1980; Gamson, 1989; Gamson and Modigliani, 1989) and have been employed to study organizational practice in a variety of
disciplines such as strategy formulation (Kaplan, 2008) and environmental management (Isendahl et al., 2009; Dewulf et al., 2011).
26
As Kaplan (2008, p. 729) notes “where the basic meaning of the situation is up for grabs… Research in managerial cognition has
suggested that cognitive frames are the means by which managers sort through these ambiguities.”
96 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

to constructing collective “definitions of the situation” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) among stakeholders of
an IT system. (p. 154). Azad and Faraj (2011a) show how competing definitions can “often entail struggles
over meaning among the users and designers both of whom aspire to have their definition of the situation
(e.g. features or workflow choices) to be the collectively enacted meaning inscribed in the working system”
(Azad and Faraj, 2011a, p. 36). Thus, while multiple meanings may be represented during the design, not all
meanings may actually be inscribed into the system. Sometimes only the accounts of “powerful” individuals/
groups or those attached to resource dependencies are inscribed (Creed et al., 2002b). The importance of
meanings has been held to be a mode of power in itself and termed “meaning power”. Meaning power refers
to the ability to influence “the meaning constructed by organizational actors in order to tilt in their favor IT
design and configuration choices during implementation” (Azad and Faraj, 2011a, p. 36). This definition is
grounded on Bourdieu and Passeron's (1970/1990) definition whereby meaning power is the “power which
manages to impose meanings” (p. 4). As a result, exercising meaning power can be a contentious process
resulting in the group having the most power dictating the “collective” representation (Benford and Snow,
2000; Azad and Faraj, 2011a).
The predominant collective frames are not merely an aggregation of individual cognitions, but rather a
product of a dynamic process of meaning construction and an outcome of political action. Meaning power is
therefore viewed as both an outcome and a process since actors ascribe meanings into the design of the
system, and this involves a contentious framing process whereby actors attempt to influence the construction
of meanings to suit their interests (Azad and Faraj, 2011a). During the framing process coalitions shift over
time as proponents and opponents work to frame an initiative in a way that would resonate more broadly in
order to mobilize action in favor of a desired decision outcome (Kaplan, 2008).
Despite this explanation of framing as an iterative process, IS literature shows that representation can
manifest without the acceptance of its accompanying dominant frame by certain individuals (Kholeif et al.,
2007). Here other forces of power help to mobilize frames that are not necessarily accepted among the group.
For example, formal power structures, institutional power or access to resources may give certain individuals
the ability to impose their frame over others. Thus, by analyzing how frames are conceptualized, the underlying
power relationships and structures may become evident.

5.2. Enactment processes

We illustrate how the dialogical principles might be enacted applying a frame-based method using the
signature matrix developed by Creed et al. (2002a) and adapted and applied by Azad and Faraj (2011a, 2011b).
Azad and Faraj's (2011a, 2011b) application, referred to as contentious framing, contains six major elements:
master frame; frame catch-phrases; frame problem definition; framed diagnosis and prognosis; frame
empirical credibility; and frame resonance.27 Using the first dialogic principle – recognize multiple ideological
orientations – Table 3 illustrates how dialogic accounting theory and framing can be used together in the design
process of an AIS–SEA. We draw on two conflicting framings discussed earlier, namely monologic (design is a
business prerogative) and dialogic (participatory design) in developing prototype descriptions of alternative
design perspectives.28 The actual system design would construct a matrix for each of the other dialogic
principles (e.g., the content/design of the AIS–SEA, the level of AIS–SEA knowledge required to participate in
design and understand IS design documentation, effective participation, power relations among stakeholders,
the benefits of pluralism/dialogism and the importance of ongoing reflection).
Design as the business' prerogative and participatory design represent the two ideological orientations.
The master frame for the business prerogative holds that the primary objective of AIS–SEA design is to
support business objectives, succinctly stated as maximizing shareholder value. The operational implications
are that the system design must contribute to adding value to the business and therefore its shareholders.
Thus, the problem definition includes the requirement for more SEA but only SEA initiatives that add
economic value are considered legitimate/rational alternatives. Problem diagnosis is stated in terms of SEA

27
We have chosen to use these six elements to illustrate our proposal for applying dialogical framing to AIS–SEA. We are currently
undertaking research designed to verify their reliability within an AIS–SEA context. To do so here is beyond the scope of the current
discussion.
28
We see these prototypes as useful in developing design processes as well as evaluating the efficacy of AIS–SEA design and
implementation projects.
N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101 97

Table 3
Application of the signature matrix method — recognize multiple ideological orientations.

Signature matrix element Frame: AIS–SEA design is a business Frame: participatory design of AIS–SEA
prerogative (resonant) (non-resonant)

Master frame — recognize AIS–SEA is seen as a tool to support neutral, AIS–SEA are not and cannot be neutral or
ideological orientations value-free accounts. Narrow view of stake- value-free, but rather support value-based
holders and little or no acknowledgment of practices and evaluations. IS should enable
different socio-political perspectives. discussion and debate among a diverse
Consensus about values (e.g. advancing range of stakeholders and from a variety of
shareholder wealth) is assumed. AIS–SEA socio-political perspectives. Involving
design to support business objectives — stakeholders in the design of AIS–SEA
maximizing shareholder value (business (stakeholder-accountability frame).
case).
Catchphrase: visible frame “AIS–SEA must add value to business and its “The business needs to be held more
symbolic element shareholders”. accountable to society”.
Frame problem definition: what is Stakeholders require more SEA information Present SEA information is unsatisfactory.
the real issue here according to but SEA initiatives need to add value to the Stakeholders cannot make informed deci-
the framers? business and its shareholders. sions or take appropriate actions regarding
the business's impact on society and
environment.
Frame diagnosis and prognosis: • Legislation and standards require and • The businesses do not provide adequate
WHAT does the frame select and promote the need for businesses to provide SEA information to stakeholders.
highlight as salient: SEA information. • Involve stakeholders in IS design so that it
• Problem (diagnosis) • SEA information will be reported on the captures and provides adequate information.
• Solution/treatment (prognosis) basis that it adds value to shareholders.
Stakeholders need to be managed.
Frame empirical credibility (link to It is the government's responsibility to The business is accountable to stakeholders/
culture and environment): what ensure social and environmental welfare. society and stakeholders should be privy to
does the frame appeal to and push Businesses must abide with legislation set IS design documentation or be able to
for? by the government. participate in the design of AIS–SEA.
Frame resonance Present design of AIS–SEA for SEA. Participatory/dialogic AIS–SEA are few.

information needs in light of legislative and regulatory standards, and the reported SEA information would be
determined on the basis of value added. Information reported to other stakeholders would be to the extent
that these constituencies should, or could, be managed. The empirical credibility that circumscribes the AIS–
SEA scope limits responsibility to the legislative and regulatory requirements set by the government, which is
the institution responsible for ensuring social and environmental welfare. The result is AIS–SEA design
criteria, processes, and results consistent with those currently in place.
The master frame for the stakeholder participatory frame involves all interested parties in the design of AIS–
SEA, with accountability broadened beyond owners/shareholders. The operational implications are that the
business needs to be held accountable by society for its economic, social and environmental responsibilities. In
framing the problem, it is recognized that the current SEA information, and the associated systems, is
unsatisfactory. Stakeholders cannot make informed decisions or take appropriate actions regarding the business'
impact on society. Problem diagnosis is that the business does not provide adequate SEA information for
stakeholders and the solution is to involve stakeholders in AIS–SEA design so as to collect and report adequate
information. The empirical credibility that circumscribes the AIS–SEA scope is that business is accountable to all
interested parties and each should be able to participate in AIS–SEA design and/or be privy to the design
documentation.
By employing the framework, we can distinguish between monologic and dialogic framings as well as
identify and explore contradictory situations (e.g. divergences between best practice guidelines and actual
practices). This theoretical structure assists in analyzing how designers of AIS–SEA may consider ways of
including stakeholders in contested situations, for example, by ignoring, subordinating or reframing.

6. Summary and concluding comments

Given the prevailing dissatisfaction with current reports and reporting systems, our objective has been
to initiate and facilitate an ongoing conversation and debate regarding the theory and practice of
98 N. Blackburn et al. / International Journal of Accounting Information Systems 15 (2014) 83–101

designing AIS for SEA. We emphasize the need for stakeholder engagement during the design of AIS–SEA
where dialog and multiple perspectives are taken seriously by organizations. Moreover, we recognize the
contribution of counter-accounts as a way of providing alternative perspectives (ones that are not limited
by business case framings). Better engagement with stakeholders and counter-accounts provide potential for
not only providing stakeholders with quality information, but also for holding organizations accountable for
their social and environmental impacts and challenging them to respond in a transparent manner to the
information needs of stakeholders.
We draw on both the SEA and the participatory IS literatures, highlighting the political nature of
designing IS. AIS–SEA artifacts are the result of political struggles, products of conflicting views and
carriers of specific interests (Callon, 1986; Ihde, 1990; Latour, 1993). The design of AIS–SEA can only be
explained through understanding its history and interpretations that users/stakeholders assign to it. As a
result, AIS–SEA design requires contextualization by studying its meaning from the point of view not only
of the designers and users/stakeholders (Feenberg, 1999, 2002).
We theorize AIS–SEA design comparing monological and dialogical perspectives vis-à-vis the principles
for dialogical engagement and illustrate how these principles might be enacted in framing AIS–SEA design
within the context of the dialogical accounting principles. We have illustrated ways in which the “theory” and
“practice” of SEA can be brought closer together, fostering participatory AIS–SEA that enhances the quality of
stakeholder engagement and facilitates social and environmental accountability.
A dialogic accounting framework motivates and facilitates rethinking both the theorization and practice of
designing AIS–SEA. The application of such a framework can suggest how designers could better assist users
operating in pluralistic SEA environments through stakeholder/user participation. Dialogic accounting requires
systems that support dialog among stakeholders with different perspectives (which does not necessarily
require one common position or system). The result of these applications to AIS–SEA design provides a more
critical analysis by situating the AIS–SEA design activities more explicitly within the broader socio-political
context.
One indicator of the successful application of the design structure might be the degree to which the
process re-orients, focuses, and energizes participants in what Freire (1973) terms ‘conscientization,’
knowing reality in order to better transform it (Lather, 1986, p. 67). This is in marked contrast to the
“positivist tenet of researcher neutrality” and is premised “on a recognition of the reality-altering impact
of the research process itself”, with the aim of fostering dialogic learning among research participants
(ibid.). This may, for example, involve all participants becoming aware of issues they had not previously
thought about and/or a re-framing of the problem itself (e.g. by re-examining underlying assumptions),
which in turn leads to new questions and issues (Bebbington et al., 2007b). It is these new questions and
issues that we attempted to motivate, not necessarily their resolution.

Acknowledgment

Judy Brown and Jesse Dillard wish to thank the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund for supporting
their work on this paper as part of a funded program on “Dialogic Accounting: the Challenge of Taking
Multiple Perspectives Seriously”, Contract No. VUW1011. We also acknowledge the useful and stimulating
discussions with the participants in the 2012 CSEAR Conference, St. Andrews University and the Accounting
Research Seminar, Queen's University Belfast, the Accounting Research Seminar, University of Strathclyde,
and Dr. Matthew Haugh.

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