The academic field of economics is sometimes referred to as the holy social science. This is partly because its mission is to explain human behavior in terms of how money is earned and deployed. A dictionary definition for economics is "having to do with 1) the management of production, distribution and consumption of wealth, and 2) the management of income, expenditures, etc. of a household, private business, community or government."1 Many economists have sizable egos, and some of them place the position of their profession well above their colleagues in the fields of financial and managerial accounting. However, recent advances in theory and practices originating from the managerial accountants may cause the economists to reconsider whether they rank superior to accountants in the pecking order of management disciplines.

Cost Impacts of Broadening from Simplicity to Complexity

One of the fundamental concepts in economics describes the market price of a good or service as being determined by the quantity of both supply and demand for it. In 1890, the English economist Alfred Marshall published his famous work, Principles of Economics, and many of us remember Marshall's graph that appeared in our college economics textbooks (see Figure 1).2 The graph displays two lines that cross as an "X" with the declining line representing customer demand and the ascending line supply. The intersection of the two lines denotes an equilibrium point toward which the market price will move to equalize the supply quantity to exactly match the demand quantity. Any higher price above this equilibrium creates a surplus where sellers would inevitably lower their price to sell more of the product. A lower price creates a shortage where sellers would increase price to earn more profit.

Figure 1: Supply and Demand

The economists like graphs such as the supply and demand model and extend its principles to the popular cost-volume-profit (CPV) break-even profit graphs for an individual enterprise. The break-even graph, with sales volume increasing across the horizontal axis, denotes where, beyond an intersection of revenues exactly matching fixed plus variable costs, the enterprise becomes profitable.

Can this universally accepted economic theory be misleading to business managers? Recent advances in managerial accounting have demonstrated flaws in the economists' thinking. The economists apply the logic of economies of scale - where it is assumed that as production volume increases based on a fixed level of production assets and a workforce headcount that only gradually increases with volume, the unit cost of the product declines. The management accountant agrees with this outcome only when there is the special condition of few and similar products, but that special case rarely exists. To remain competitive, most organizations have broadly expanded the diversity and variation of their products - more colors, sizes, ranges and so on. What the economists have failed to consider is the overall rate of cost impact from the proliferation of offering different types of products and services through different channels to various types of customers which, in combination, disproportionately place different types of demands on the workers and production assets - including overhead (more appropriately called indirect expenses).

By clinging to their economies-of-scale thinking, the economists are deluded into thinking that as the enterprise sells more volume, the unit costs of products decrease. This is rarely true. Counterintuitive to the economists, there are diseconomies of scale that are not obvious until you examine cost behavior more closely. The flaw in the economists' thinking has to do with allocating indirect expenses into product costs using broad averages. The managerial accountants introduced the concept of activity-based costing (ABC), which traces how disaggregated groupings of indirect expense work activities are uniquely consumed by products (and any form of process output) based on cause-and-effect relationships. The adoption of ABC reveals that as more diverse products and services are introduced for sale, additional indirect expenses are required, such as product managers and extra storage space. The result is that each product and service has its own unique unit cost - and the newly added items typically have larger unit costs compared to the baseline product. Hence, expanding from a simple and narrow set of products to complex and broadly varying ones can accelerate expenses faster than the incremental revenues received. The accurate cost measurement of profit margins calculated by ABC surprises managers; they discover they are making and losing money on products and services much differently than their beliefs.

Managing Supply with Activity-Based Costing (ABC)

In short, ABC contributes to the economists' body of knowledge by better explaining the supply line of Marshall's supply and demand model. ABC influences the unit costs of the items the supply curve comprises as noted in Figure 1, but there is more.

To an economist, the interesting decisions are those that occur at the margin - the point at which one additional employee is hired or an additional piece of equipment is purchased to satisfy growing demand. Advances in activity-based costing address marginal cost analysis as well. As just described, ABC information provides great insight with high costing accuracy into what things cost in past periods (as well as insights into the cost drivers that created those costs); but advances in ABC, referred to as activity-based planning, have introduced the capability to calculate ABC backward. That is, based on forecasts of future period volume and mix demands, the more comprehensive costing relationships captured in ABC models allow for determining the level and type of resource expenses (i.e., capacity) needed to satisfy demand in the future. As a bonus, ABC motivates productivity initiatives to create efficiencies so future production can result at lower costs.

In short, the management accountants have gone beyond the economists' simplistic thinking of those single lines in the supply and demand model to quantify and reveal both the cost of using capacity (i.e., current supply) and the cost of acquiring future capacity (i.e., future supply) for each individual product and service. The accountants have discovered that much different conclusions are reached when you broaden the view of an enterprise from a single product, aggregated resource view to a multiproduct view drawing on diverse resources.

Managing Demand with the Balanced Scorecard

Management accountants have also introduced advances to the economists' body of knowledge in thinking related to managing the demand line, basically a company's value proposition, of the supply and demand model.

Economists have historically wrestled with determining the appropriate organizational structure to implement strategy. In the 1970s, Professor Alfred D. Chandler of the Harvard Business School led the field in writings that explored the three S's of management: strategy, structure and systems. Businesses have constantly shifted organizational (i.e., human) structures to attempt to achieve better performance by assigning more accountability; examples include shifting from centralized to decentralized (and back), from a geographic to an industry focus or from a hierarchical to a matrix structure.

In 2001, Professors Robert S. Kaplan and David Norton, two highly respected managerial accounting and information sciences faculty, concluded that there may never be a perfect organizational structure. In Kaplan and Norton's book series beginning with The Balanced Scorecard, they propose that a superior approach is to focus less on the organizational structure and concentrate on designing a managerial system that aligns an individual's behavior directly with the executive team's strategic objectives.3 They believe that leveraging strategy maps to cascade the executive team's vision and mission into the strategic objectives, resulting projects (or identified core processes to excel at) and associated measures (called key performance indicators or KPIs) would result in a direct alignment of the individual (or work team) to the strategy. This alignment renders organizational structure as a less important concern to management.

The balanced scorecard ultimately drives an enterprise to offer a better and more profitable value proposition to its customers. It represents the demand line of the supply and demand model in Figure 1; by intelligently shifting the demand line in the graph to the right (meaning higher, more profitable sales volume), price and profit margins increase.

The Accountants' Contribution to Economics

Professor Kaplan described these observations to his peers in his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Contribution Award from the American Association of Accountants Management Accounting Section annual meeting on January 6, 2006. Similar to the audience at a high school sporting event pep rally, the accountants applauded Professor Kaplan and themselves for researching and applying two broadly accepted managerial methods: activity-based management and balanced scorecard.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Kaplan during his innovations during the 1990s was that the performance management movement of the 21st century would recognize the added value of integrating multiple methodologies such as ABC and balanced scorecard. For example, the leading business intelligence software vendors have advanced the functionality of their technologies such that real-time updates in the ABC costing application can instantaneously update meters in the balanced scorecard dashboard. By adding predictive analytics, as with the activity-based planning capability, organizations can not only monitor the KPI dials, but more importantly they can also move the dials reflecting improved performance by being more proactive rather than reactive. This results from aligning the operational work behavior and priorities of employees with the executive team's strategic intent. This is how the beautiful vision of what a complete performance management framework as described in my columns can become a reality.

References:

  1. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (Second Edition). David B. Guralink, Editor in Chief. Prentice Hall Press, 1986; page 442.
  2. Marshall, Alfred. Principles of Economics. London : Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1890.
  3. Kaplan, Robert S., and David Norton. The Balanced Scorecard: Turning Strategy into Action. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.