How does A high-stakes dispute between a major microblogging and social networking company and the richest man in the world tie into ethical considerations for management accountants? As finance and accounting professionals, we partner in senior management’s decision making, devising planning and performance management systems and providing expertise in financial reporting and controls to help leadership formulate and implement the organization’s strategy. The selection and measurement of reliable metrics to assess performance is therefore at the core of management accountants’ role within business organizations, and there’s an ethical dimension to such decisions.
The recent disagreement between Twitter, the social networking platform, and Elon Musk, who made a bid to acquire the company, centered around the definition and measurement of a key performance metric that impacts the company valuation: the number of fake and spam accounts, some of which propagate and amplify misinformation, including automated “bots.” Musk attempted to terminate the $44 billion acquisition agreement before doing an about-face in October. The case is a warning for management accountants to educate themselves about challenges and ethical considerations for reporting, financial planning and analysis, and performance management systems.
When Musk attempted to terminate his agreement to acquire the social networking giant, he claimed that Twitter provided inaccurate information regarding “the true number of false or spam accounts,” according to Musk’s lawyers. Although Twitter previously acknowledged calculation errors that overstated its actual user base, this time Twitter defended its measurements and claimed that it did, in fact, provide Musk with historical data and sufficient explanation of the process that its personnel followed to estimate the number of spam accounts and bots.
Data scientists point out that it’s quite difficult to determine the number of fake accounts with objectivity and precision. The case illustrates a challenge that isn’t unique to Twitter: Organizational performance often depends on intangible drivers that are hard to measure and require making complex estimates in an ethical way. Whether it is or isn’t appropriate to use such a challenge as an excuse to “put on hold” a $44 billion acquisition deal, as Musk tweeted, is debatable.
Performance management systems are becoming more comprehensive and can’t be limited to traditional financial and volume-based indicators. Management accountants have a responsibility to oversee and scrutinize such processes and metrics through the lens of ethics. It’s paramount for an organization’s performance management function to broaden its scope to nonfinancial metrics, which necessitates the development of more than technical accounting skills.
The conflict between Twitter and Musk highlights crucial ethical considerations that tie into management accounting practices. The first ethical standard in the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice is competence. Management accountants are expected to “provide decision support information and recommendations that are accurate, clear, concise, and timely.” As in the case of Twitter, and for many businesses, determining performance metrics with precision and objectivity demands data analytics and technology skills. Investing in developing these skills is no longer just a professional development matter but also an ethical imperative to avoid misleading representations of organizational performance.
Through predictive analytics, management accountants can highlight the relationships between financial metrics (e.g., growth of advertising revenues) and nonfinancial performance indicators (e.g., the number of daily tweets and user sentiment analysis). Thus, finance professionals can contribute to a more complete performance assessment. By continuously improving their skill set, management accountants can partner ethically in decision making and assist management in implementing the organization’s strategy.
The IMA Statement also includes integrity as an ethical standard that requires management accountants to “contribute to a positive ethical culture.” Did Twitter fail to provide fair information regarding its user base? Are its estimation methodologies biased? The case of Twitter vs. Musk underscores the need to infuse performance management systems with ethics and calls for a renewed sense of ethical responsibility for finance professionals to support management’s decision making with unbiased analysis of performance information. Management accountants must be able to identify potential conflicts of interest and advocate for data governance practices that bolster the integrity of the design and reporting of performance metrics.
Further, the IMA Statement includes credibility as an ethical standard that requires management accountants to provide “all relevant information that could reasonably be expected to influence an intended user’s understanding of the reports, analyses, or recommendations” as well as to communicate “professional limitations or other constraints that would preclude responsible judgment or successful performance of an activity.” For Twitter, the number of fake, spam, and bot accounts is a relevant piece of information that has consequences for stakeholders, including investors, advertisers, and acquirers. The credibility standard is foundational to the production of accurate performance information. Accuracy refers to two properties of performance metrics: precision, including freedom from noise; and objectivity, meaning freedom from bias.
By complementing their traditional skill set with data analytics and through continuing education in professional ethics, management accountants can assist organizations in devising modern measurement systems and ensure that the data is collected, interpreted, and applied ethically and that the findings are shared with all stakeholders. Management accountants have a great opportunity to actively contribute to cross-functional teams and enhance practices that resolve measurement issues in an ethical manner.