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Accounting ambiguity and structural change

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Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to present an emergent model showing the change potential inherent in the mirroring of time-space bound metrics and numbers in management accounting (MA) and other cognitive frames. Design/methodology/approach ‐ An observation-based qualitative field study of a change project in a large manufacturing company is used as the basis for the analysis. Findings ‐ The empirical study shows that as actors recurrently mirror time-space bound metrics/numbers in MA and other cognitive frames, three forms of ambiguity may occur. Definitional ambiguities occur as actors' extant MA frame cannot fully account for the metric as such, while representational ambiguities occur as actors perceive uncertainties as to what a particular number stands for "in reality". Operational ambiguities, finally, occur as actors perceive uncertainties as to how time-space bound numbers can be "causally" explained. In the emergent model, the paper shows how these different forms of ambiguity constitute important sources of critical and collective reflection of, and subsequent change in, both metrics and MA and other cognitive frames. Originality/value ‐ Through identifying and elaborating on the change potential inherent in the interplay between cognitive frames and time-space bound metrics and numbers, the study adds a partial, yet previously largely unexplored answer to the paradox of embedded agency in a MA context (i.e. how actors may change existing cognitive (MA) frames when their interpretations and actions are largely constrained and shaped by these very frames). Also, the study shows that it may not necessarily be the content of MA information per se that triggers critical reflection and structural MA change, but also the perceived ambiguities that such information use may engender.
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Keywords: Accounting; Ambiguity; Cognitive frames; Management accounting; Management accounting change; Metrics; Numbers; Social structure

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2013-03-22

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