The hypothesis of my doctoral research was that "conceptual graphs are a suitable knowledge-based decision support tool for use by management accountants in strategic planning".
In approximately six years of being an accountant in industry, I became increasingly aware of the large part that the computer was going to play in the accounting profession. Whilst in the profession, I had seen the electronic spreadsheet transform one of the accountant's longest and most tedious tasks, namely adding rows and columns of figures with no more than a calculator, into an elementary exercise. Furthermore, the accountant's use of the powerful computer spreadsheet had opened up a new, and much more meaningful, range of financial information for the organisation in which that accountant was employed. I was so interested in the significance of the computer for the accountant, that I undertook the one year MSc Information Technology course at Loughborough University of Technology.
During that course I became aware of the artificial intelligence field. From the work in this area, I felt that the computer could benefit the accountant in more ways than allowed by numeric and data-based analysis. Potentially, artificial intelligence could enable the accountant in tackling the qualitative dimensions of business too. Thereby the accountant's soundly developed techniques could be extended into the top-level area of strategic business knowledge, whose qualitatively-based nature had essentially caused this problem domain to remain outside the scope of the already mentioned numeric and data-based computational methods. In pursuit of the above, I conducted my doctoral research. In abstract, that thesis is described as follows:
Knowledge-based approaches can help accountants apply their skills in the direction of strategic management problems. Such problem domains cannot be modelled effectively by computer alone, hence we are only interested in those advanced knowledge-based methodologies that can be adequately reviewed by strategic management accountants in the light of their own continually changing tacit and implicit knowledge.
Structured diagram techniques, such as flowcharting, are well known by accountants and are a clearly understandable yet important aid in problem review. Apart from being founded on a logically complete reasoning system, the knowledge-based methodology of conceptual graphs was formulated to be an enhancement of these other methods. Furthermore the graphical form of conceptual graphs enjoy an apparent similarity to the 'negating' brackets in the accountant's traditional bookkeeping model.
After conducting a comparative study with two similar methodologies in current use showing the technical advantages of conceptual graphs, the Conceptual Analysis and Review Environment computer software was devised and implemented. CARE was used to test the accepted graphical form of conceptual graphs through a series of user evaluation sessions. The evaluations started out with subjects from the conceptual graphs community itself, then key business school staff, and culminated in a session with senior practising accountants. In addition, CARE was enhanced iteratively in accordance with the results of each evaluation session.
Despite their strong prima facie attractiveness and positive response from the conceptual graphs community session, as the user evaluations progressed it became increasingly evident that the inherent logical complexities that conceptual graphs so beautifully highlighted fundamentally undermined them as a viable tool, other than for very trivial problems well below the level needed to be viable for strategic management accountancy. Therefore the original contribution of this research is, sadly, that its hypothesis turns out to be false.
At the time of my research there appeared to be no other available representation that can manipulate strategic decisions on computer whilst retaining human usability. Should they arise, the design and investigation of new representations for such problems would be valuable future work.
15 January 2003