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Striking a Balance in Management Accounting Curricula Essay

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A replica study of Tan, Fowler and Hawkes (2004) using their 2001 questionnaire was conducted in 2010 to compare any differences over a nine year period of the importance of 21 management accounting topics that educators and practitioners considered important for a graduate who intends to pursue a career in management accounting. The survey results for both 2001 and 2010 indicate that educators viewed performance evaluation, product costing, behavioural implications and activity-based costing as their top four important topics. Practitioners viewed cash flow management, operational budgeting and variance analysis most important in 2001 and 2010.

Product costing which ranked eighth in 2001, came in as the second most important practitioners’ topic for 2010. The elevation of product costing may indicate management accountants’ use of techniques may be reactionary to the external environment, which has been difficult over the past few years. The overall results confirm the 2001 survey that practitioners still tend to favour traditional management accounting techniques, with educators emphasing modern techniques as more important.

Keywords: Management accounting education


Since the 1970s, the relevance of management accounting curriculum in preparing students for practice has been the subject of wide debate (Deakin and Summers, 1975).

This discussion intensified during the 1980s and 1990s when new management accounting techniques, such as activity-based costing (ABC) and strategic management accounting (SMA) were developed. These can be described as ‘advanced’ management accounting techniques, and were created in response to a globalised and more complex business environment. Most of the ‘traditional’ management accounting techniques, such as break even analysis, standard costing and transfer pricing were developed by 1925, and Kaplan in 1984 stated that little development had occurred since.

Discussion then centered on what techniques ─ both advanced and traditional, should belong in a management accounting curriculum. Moreover, the discussion of a ‘gap’ between what techniques educators were teaching and practitioners were using also became topical. The purpose of this study is to compare the 2001 results reported by Tan, Fowler and Hawkes (2004) against those in 2010 by using the same questionnaire on the importance and use of management accounting topics between educators and practitioners. This study has implications for tertiary educators and professional bodies such as the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA), who are responsible for determining management accounting courses in tertiary education.

Literature Review

The debate of what to include in a management accounting curriculum began in the 1970s, and intensified in the 1980s and 1990s, when new management accounting techniques began to appear in response to globalization and technological developments in business (Deakin and Summers, 1975; Knight and Zook 1982; Szendi and Elmore, 1993). A New Zealand study in 2001 reported by Tan et al. (2004) confirmed the mainly U.S. research that practitioners favoured use of traditional management accounting techniques (Knight and Zook, 1982; Lander and Reinstein, 1987; Robinson and Barrett (1987), and that educators emphasised advanced management accounting techniques (Edwards and Emmanuel, 1990; Cable, Healy, and Mathew, 2009).

Since Tan et al. (2004) the discussion on the use of management accounting techniques by practitioners, and their topic inclusion in the curriculum has continued. Several studies found that traditional topics still are important to practitioners in use, therefore having similar results to Tan et al. (2004) (Waldron and Everett, 2005; Isa and Foong, 2005; Cooper, 2006; Ahadiat; 2008; Tatikonda and Savchenko, 2010). Reymeyer and France (2006) used the categories of management accounting techniques used in Tan et al. (2004) to record the frequency of their mention in job advertisements for management accountants in New Zealand. Their results were consistent with the result of Tan et al. (2004), with traditional techniques dominating the tasks required to be performed in the position specification..

Research Method

The questionnaire used in the 2001 survey was mailed out to 300 randomly selected large public and private companies in New Zealand. The heads of department of the fourteen tertiary educational institutes (TEIs) accredited by NZICA were also sent a questionnaire, and asked to pass them onto staff teaching management accounting courses. In the questionnaire practitioners and educators were asked to attach the importance to 21 management accounting topics by using a Likert scale of 1=not important and 5=extremely important.

Practitioners were also asked to indicate using a Likert scale whether they in fact used any of the techniques in their organisation (1=never to 5 =frequently) to determine if use of the technique affected their views of the importance of a topic (techniques were the same as topics indicated in the previous section of the questionnaire). The questionnaires, along with a covering letter were mailed in May 2010, enclosing a postage paid reply envelope. Follow up letters were sent at the end of that month to both practitioners and educators.

Results and discussion

Usable responses were received from 63 practitioners (21%) in comparison to 69 (23%) in 2001. While these samples are low, the rate is comparable to many mail surveys. (Adler et al. (2000) for instance had a 19% response rate from manufacturing firms in New Zealand.). As only four replies were received from the follow-up mailing from a total of 63 no test was made for nonresponse bias. Responses were received from 20 educators from nine tertiary institutes.

Relative importance of topics and use of techniques

Table 3 shows the mean scores of educators’ and practitioners’ importance of 21 management accounting topics in education. Similar to the 2001 survey, practitioners found all topics important, as did educators ─ except for ERP (2.15) (enterprise resource planning computing systems). Therefore no significant movement has been made in terms of educators’ importance of ERP systems from the 2001 results (2.43). The mean scores were ranked in order of importance for practitioners and educators, and statistical tests (two tailed t-test) were conducted to detect any significant differences between the two groups’ perceptions of the topics. The significance levels are indicated by asterisks at the bottom of Table 3. As was the case in 2001, educators chose performance evaluation, product costing, behavioural implications and activity-based costing as their top four topics. Practitioners rated cash flow management, product costing, operational budgeting and variance analysis as their most important topics.

Product costing, which had ranked eighth position in 2001, assumed position number two in 2010. The two tailed t-tests revealed the mean scores for seven of the 21 topics were statistically different between educators and practitioners compared to nine topics in 2001. The perceptions of the importance of the topics were statistically significant for practitioners and educators in 2010: cash flow management (ranked 1, 19), customer profitability (6, 16), ERP systems (7, 21), capital budgeting (9, 15), process costing (14, 20), responsibility accounting (20, 7), and behavioural implications (21, 3). Advanced techniques however are still the most important to educators, with three of their top four: performance evaluation (4.46), behavioural implications (4.23) and activity-based costing (4.15) unchanged from 2001.

Table 4 lists practitioners’ mean scores of the 21 management accounting techniques’ use in their organisation, and what they think is important in education. Similar to 2001, the top three techniques in use were cash flow management, variance analysis, and operational budgeting. Product costing went from a use mean of 2.70 in 2001, to 3.89 in 2010. Pearson’s Correlation statistical test revealed that use of the management accounting technique affected their rating of their importance (p<0.001). Therefore the more the technique is used, the greater the importance. This mirrored 2001. According to the results of the 2010 survey, the more traditional management accounting techniques are still used and important to practitioners. Product costing assumed a greater importance (4.32) compared to the 2001 survey (3.88). In fact all of the traditional costing techniques showed mean increases (standard costing which ranked 11 in 2001, advanced to eighth place in 2010).

These results maybe explained by differences in the economy in 2001 and 2010. Turmoil in financial markets and the world economy in the past few years could have resulted in organisations placing greater importance on managing costs, hence greater importance and use placed on these techniques by practitioners. Overall practitioners rated as important seven out of their top ten topics which could be classified as traditional management accounting techniques (i.e. cash flow management, product costing, operational budgeting, variance analysis, standard costing, capital budgeting and cost/volume analysis). This shows that no significant move has been made away from traditional management accounting topics for practitioners from 2001, which then listed six topics. Educators in contrast listed five out of their top ten topics as traditional management accounting techniques (product costing, operational budgeting, responsibility accounting, cost/volume analysis and absorption/variable costing) compared to four in 2001.

Effect on firm size, product number, experience of management accounting and industry In order to determine if turnover, product number, practitioner experience or industry had any impact on the above practitioner results an ANOVA was conducted. Use in industry had a significant impact on costing methods used by manufacturing firms for; activity-based costing (p<.01), process costing (p<.01); and service firms for product costing (p<.01) compared to retail/wholesale. This is not surprising as manufacturing and service firms would have more need to utilize product costing techniques than retail/wholesale organisations. The other significant difference was in the area of use of responsibility accounting with those with <10 years experience using the technique less than those in an older age group.

Responsibility accounting is a traditional technique, and younger, recently educated management accountants exposed to decentralized, flatter contemporary organisation structures may prefer these rather than hierarchical, vertical ones. Choice of organisation structure however may not rest with the management accountant and reasons for this could be explained by a number of variables. ANOVAs conducted in the importance in education category revealed that activity-based costing (p<.05) was significant in the manufacturing industry over retail/wholesale and service industry. The turnover category had a significant impact on the importance job costing (p<.05) and standard costing (p<.01) for firms with higher turnovers. Higher turnover however does not necessarily mean there is an increased need for these costing systems, so reasons for this are unclear. Out of a possible 504 combinations the statistical tests revealed only seven attributes had an impact on how practitioners’ perceptions of management accounting. This shows that the effect of other factors did not alter the views held by practitioners.

Conclusions and implications

This longitudal study compared the 2001 results of Tan et al. (2004) to those surveyed in 2010 by using a replica questionnaire. An interesting difference in the 2010 results from 2001 concerning practitioners is the importance of costing systems. A strong recessionary economic environment over the past few years may have placed emphasis on costing systems for firms managing costs. This may be evidence that the choice of management accounting techniques for practitioners may be strongly correlated and reactionary to their external environment. Use and importance of ERP systems has increased by practitioners, but educators rate the topic less significant than in 2001. Criticisms of educators in regard to lack of application of technology to the business world are therefore still valid from these results (Albrecht and Sack, 2001; Beaman and Richardson 2007; Ahadiat, 2008). While in 2001 both educators and practitioners shared seven topics in their top ten most important management accounting techniques ─ only four were shared in 2010 (product costing, operational budgeting, performance evaluation and cost/volume analysis).

ERP systems and standard costing increased in importance for practitioners, at the expense of activity-based costing and strategic management accounting. Educators rated absorption/variable costing and cost/volume analysis higher in 2010 while placing less emphasis on customer profitability and variance analysis. The results show that practitioners have not moved closer to use of advanced management accounting techniques, but still placing emphasis on traditional techniques, and confirmed by a recent New Zealand study (Reymer and France, 2006). In summary these results substantiate the 2001 survey that practitioners are still using and holding important traditional management accounting techniques. Educators, as in 2001, still emphasise as important the more advanced management accounting techniques. Educators therefore cannot disregard as unimportant the teaching of traditional management accounting topics, at the expense of more advanced ones.

Limitations and further research

Although the response rate was low at 21%, (23% in 2001) limitations may exist as to generalisations for the practitioner responses. However the outcomes are consistent with other studies with a higher population sample (Edwards and Emmanuel, 1990; Szendi and Elmore, 1993), and the first survey results in Tan et al. (2004). A recent New Zealand study conducted by Reymer and France (2006), although using a different methodology, had a larger population sample whose results were similar to Tan et al. (2004). As the same survey form that was used in 2001 was replicated, the same limitations apply of interpretation of terms by practitioners.

Performance evaluation for instance could be perceived either as return on investment (traditional) or economic value added (advanced). Similarly product costing could mean a traditional or advanced technique. The research does not give reasons as to why a management technique is used or not used, however it does show a use and importance of traditional management accounting techniques over advanced ones by practitioners. Further research could list an equal mix of traditional and advanced management accounting techniques which are more clearly defined e.g. elimination of generalised categories such as ‘product costing’ to be replaced by specific techniques such as ‘target costing’. Recent graduates could also be asked as to the usefulness of management techniques in practice that they gained in their tertiary education.

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