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Digital archive of theses discussed at the University of Pisa


Thesis etd-04052024-161708

Thesis type
Tesi di dottorato di ricerca
email address
d.cesabianchi@studenti.unipi.it, damiano.cb@gmail.com
Thesis title
Towards Accounting 4.0: An Exploratory Framework
Academic discipline
Course of study
tutor Prof. Bagnoli, Luca
relatore Prof. Manetti, Giacomo
  • accounting
  • accounting 4.0
  • digitalization
  • fourth industrial revolution
  • industry 4.0
Graduation session start date
A growing body of accounting literature has been dedicating substantial attention to technological innovation in accounting (Haapamäki and Sihvonenm, 2019; Walton et al., 2021; Bartolacci et al., 2020; Hoitash et al., 2021; Plattfaut and Borghoff, 2022; Lombardi et al., 2022; Garanina et al., 2022; Bellucci et al., 2022). This burgeoning interest is evident not only in specialized accounting information system journals but also in highly relevant general accounting journals. Moreover, recent calls for papers (Lodhia et al., 2023; Möller et al., 2023; Vasarhelyi and Kogan, 2023) are further catalyzing new explorations in the field of accounting technologies.
Social media, blockchain, big data, artificial intelligence, and XBRL represent just a few of the technological themes that have gained significant momentum within the realm of accounting research. This transformation, driven by a multitude of technological innovations in accounting, has raised concerns about the future of the accounting profession. Marrone e Hazelton (2019) further suggest that the overall impact of these innovations may be disruptive.
Recent technological advancements are also presenting new opportunities and challenges for research methods (Anand et al., 2020; Leuz, 2022; Bochkay et al., 2023). New data sources, such as narratives, vocal recognition, eye tracking, structured, and unstructured data, have become available (Hrazdil et al., 2020). Additionally, new statistical tools have shown the ability to outperform traditional regression analysis (Hobson et al., 2012; Chen et al., 2022).
Given that these technological innovations are permeating accounting simultaneously, research focused on individual technologies has laid the foundation for a parallel research stream. In this emerging research stream, a holistic approach to exploring technological innovations in accounting is taking shape (Moll & Yigitbasioglu, 2019; Lombardi & Secundo, 2020; Mancini et al., 2021a; Knudsen, 2020; Agostino et al., 2022). However, it's worth noting that this new research stream is still in its infancy and lacks a clear, universally accepted definition. Some researchers refer to it as digitalization in accounting, while others use broader terms like internet-related technologies.
The current rapid pace of innovations and disruptive transformations is not limited to the accounting sector alone; it is part of a more pervasive phenomenon that characterizes our societies, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0. In light of this context, I propose to term the recent innovation phenomenon in accounting as "Accounting 4.0.". Similar terms have already been defined within the accounting domain, albeit with references to specific subfields, such as "Management Accounting 4.0" and "Audit 4.0."
The novelty of the phenomenon and the extensive research coverage within the accounting field presents opportunities for exploratory research aimed at providing a comprehensive overview and a deeper understanding. Given the aforementioned motivation, this thesis focuses on the following research questions (RQs), all related to the evolution of accounting in Industry 4.0:

1. What are the key technological themes that characterize Accounting 4.0?
2. What are the current trends and developments in Accounting 4.0 research?
3. How can an Accounting 4.0 framework be defined and designed?
4. What is the context in which Accounting 4.0 emerged?
5. Which theories can be employed to analyze innovations in Accounting 4.0?
6. How have accounting technologies historically evolved in previous industrial revolutions?

The first three questions constitute the primary focus of this thesis and contribute to exploring what Accounting 4.0 is and its implications. The fourth research question serves to contextualize Accounting 4.0 within the broader phenomenon of Industry 4.0. The fifth research question provides an opportunity to stimulate a theoretical debate on how to address the diffusion of innovation in the accounting domain. The sixth research question proposes a historical perspective to analyze the connection between accounting and industrial revolutions.
While all the research questions revolve around a common object of interest, which is Accounting 4.0, they require different methodological approaches to address them. These distinct research approaches are also reflected in the structure of this thesis.
The social context in which Accounting 4.0 operates is examined through a traditional literature review, primarily based on gray literature, consisting of reports on industry 4.0 from the big four accounting firms. This analysis is presented in Chapter 1, which consequently addresses RQ4.
The theoretical discussion, guided by RQ5 and discussed in Chapter 3, is primarily structured as a traditional literature review. It may also be categorized as a conceptual chapter (McGregor, 2019), and following Jakkola (2020), it falls under the category of a theory synthesis chapter.
A brief historical perspective on the relationship between accounting technological innovation and industrial revolutions is presented in Chapter 4, addressing RQ6. In the development of this chapter, both archival and historical oral data sources were employed, following the triangulation approach (Hopper and Hoque, 2006) to enhance robustness.
RQ 1-2-3 were addressed through a systematic literature review based on a sample of 840 articles. These articles were selected from 63 journals designated as ABS "Account" journals, all published from 2011 onwards. These articles cover 17 key technological themes discussed in Chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 7 synthesizes the findings and conceptualizes an exploratory framework for Accounting 4.0.
The systematic literature review (SLR) protocol was further enhanced by incorporating Natural Language Processing (NLP) text analysis. This NLP analysis played a crucial role in defining the key technological themes for inclusion and categorizing the papers into the selected topics. This methodological choice not only ensures replicability and transparency but also contributes to the methodological literature. Despite recent guidelines advocating for the adoption of text analysis procedures in accounting research (Anand et al., 2020; Bochkay et al., 2023), there has been limited adoption within SLR protocols (Garanina et al., 2022).
This work is structured to lead the reader from a general introduction that establishes the context, outlines the research questions and gaps, and presents the chosen methodological approaches to address the RQs (Section 1 – Chapters 1 and 2). It then progresses to offer theoretical and historical insights (Section 2 - Chapters 3 and 4), explores individual key technological topics (Section 3 - Chapters 5 and 6), and culminates by introducing an exploratory framework that may define Accounting 4.0 (Section 4 – Chapter 7).
The findings suggest that the following technologies are Accounting 4.0 technologies: (1) social media, (2) blockchain, (3) big data, (4) cyber-security, (5) automation, (6) artificial intelligence, (7) cloud, (8) website, (9) XBRL, (10) Software, (11) Computer, (12) Information and Communication Technology (ICT), (13) Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), (14) Email, and (15) Internet. The first seven technological themes can be regarded as innovations within Accounting 4.0, while the remaining ones may be seen as part of the technological continuum.
The Accounting 4.0 exploratory framework, in addition to the technological layer, conceptualizes both an operational and a research layer. The operational layer encompasses implications for accountants' identity and the role of accounting in society. Meanwhile, the research layer provides insights into potential theoretical and methodological opportunities for future research.
The thesis stands out for its originality from multiple perspectives. Firstly, the process of defining the key technological themes of Accounting 4.0 is conducted meticulously and rigorously, ensuring inclusivity and replicability in topic definition. Secondly, it takes an extensive approach to the phenomenon by analyzing 17 distinct topics, which is a departure from the structure typically found in journal articles. Thirdly, the thesis introduces an innovative exploratory framework for understanding Accounting 4.0. Fourthly, it integrates Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis into the Systematic Literature Review (SLR) protocol, which is a novel methodological contribution. Fifthly, it sheds light on the historical significance of the Italian context during the era of mechanization, particularly in relation to the Italian firm Olivetti. Lastly, it stimulates a theoretical debate advocating for the adoption of more standardized theoretical frameworks in the study of technological innovation. This would not only enhance scientific validity but also would open opportunities for meta-analysis.
The thesis makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on accounting technological innovations. It provides a holistic and comprehensive exploration of the phenomenon known as Accounting 4.0, which encompasses accounting technological innovations and their implications in the context of the fourth industrial revolution. Additionally, it encourages discussions regarding the theoretical and historical perspectives of viewing accounting through the lens of industrial revolutions and innovation diffusion. Finally, it enhances the methodological literature by showcasing the implementation of Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis within Systematic Literature Review (SLR) protocols.
The primary limitation of this research stems from its exploratory nature, which necessitates a careful examination of the results. It's important to acknowledge that the findings are influenced by the methodological decisions made by the author. Additionally, some of the qualitative results may be subject to bias influenced by the authors' perspectives and interpretations.