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The productive accountant as (un-)wanted self: Realizing the ambivalent role of productivity measures in accountants’ identity work

A new study explores the identity-related challenges that accountants with a strong business partner identity might face when being confronted with strict productivity measures.

Accountants often face a challenging situation in contemporary organizations. On the one hand, they try to establish themselves as strategic advisors and partners for business managers (i.e., as so-called “business partners”). On the other hand, they are under increasing pressure to perform their tasks in cost-efficient ways. Following the mantra of “doing more with less”, companies try to streamline their accounting processes through automation, augmentation, and the elimination of redundant activities. These endeavors often materialize in rearranging accounting work through outsourcing or the creation of shared service centres and are accompanied by a growing demand for accountants to prove their productivity through quantitative measures. In a recent research article, Lukas Goretzki (Stockholm School of Economics) and Jan Pfister (Turku School of Economics, Stockholm School of Economics) examine in this context the following question: How do accountants experience and respond to increasing productivity pressure and a corresponding measurement regime monitoring their work?

Drawing on a qualitative case study in a fast-growing multinational technology company, the study traces how accountants face the challenge of dramatically increasing their productivity and presenting improvements through strict measures aimed to manifest the “productive accountant”. At first, the accountants were open to the productivity challenge and willing to demonstrate their performance through the newly developed metrics. Over time, however, they realized that subordinating themselves to those metrics would downgrade what they do and who they are (i.e., their identity). The accountants in the case company had developed a business partner identity built on a strong sense of performing strategically important and complex expert work that made an important contribution to management. An implication of their challenging role was that it often needed time and flexibility to dive into and solve difficult accounting problems that were relevant for managers (e.g., integrating newly acquired companies or designing complex deals with customers). The emerging focus on productivity measures however meant that processes needed to be streamlined and ideally standardized to be performed in an increasingly cost-efficient way. The company thereby started to experiment with various accounting and control tools (e.g., activity-based costing supported by detailed time tracking). This, however, conflicted with the accountants’ understanding of their complex and multifaceted business partner role that they felt could not easily be expressed in standardized units. Even more, to deal with the productivity challenge the accountants engaged more and more in activities aimed at innovating their work. Although their work thus shifted more and more towards process innovation tasks, the new productivity measures focused on capturing routine activities. Paradoxically, productivity measurement thus made productivity measurement more difficult, and the accountants felt uncomfortable expressing their performance through the new measures. The accountants in the case company eventually started to resist productivity measurement and to establish a more qualitative assessment of their work based on performance narratives.

Overall, the study demonstrates that although it seems alluringly intuitive to use productivity measures to assess the performance of accountants, it is important to consider that those measures might produce a false sense of clarity and direction and an incomplete representation of accountants’ performance, which also renders problematic the transparency and comparability that those measures (are supposed to) produce. When designing performance measures for accountants it is thus important to consider the developments that the accounting occupation has undergone in the past and through which members of this occupation managed to establish themselves as professional knowledge workers dealing with complex organizational issues relevant to strategic and operational management in organizations. Drawing merely on productivity measures might not adequately take those developments in the role of the accountant into consideration and confront them with challenges that can render their identity as business partners fragile.

Access the research article here

Dept. of Accounting Accounting Article Publication Research