What is Activity Based Costing (ABC)?

Changing external business environment has resulted in further developments in the tools and techniques used for management accounting. Traditional management accounting techniques had certain limitations associated with them, for instance, absorption costing methods have been found to be inappropriate in the modern environment. Similarly, standard costing’ suitability with respect to its general philosophy and detailed operations has come under severe criticism. It is believed that traditional management accounting performance measures can produce the wrong type of response. As a response to the limitations of traditional accounting techniques, activity based approaches has gained significant repute.

In the case of activity based approaches, the focus is on the activities that the business carries out as opposed to how the activities have traditionally been organised into separate functions. Activity based costing was thus developed because it was realized that older methods like absorption costing, which used labor hours as the basis for absorbing overheads, did not provide useful information about the cost drivers, in other words it did not answer for the question what was causing the overheads to be incurred in the first place.

Generally, Activity Based Costing (ABC) is defined as an accounting technique that allows an organization to determine the actual cost associated with each product and service produced by the organization without regard to the organizational structure. Amongst various benefits associated with the ABC approach one of the major ones is that it helps to define the activities of the organisation in terms of value adding activities. In other words, as a result of ABC it is easy to identify which activities add value to the organisation. Identification of non-value adding activities helps in identifying where time, effort and money are being wasted and unnecessary costs being incurred.

Advantages associated with Activity Based Costing (ABC) approach are many. More generally it is said that activity based costing recognizes the inherent complexities faced by many businesses in the present day, which results in the businesses having multiple cost drivers, many of them are transaction based rather than volume based. These complexities arise due to businesses now having a broader product range and the business environment in general is more volatile and unpredictable. It is further argued that activity based analysis provides a more meaningful analysis of costs which provide a better basis for pricing decisions, product mix decisions, design decisions and production decisions. Besides activity based analysis is concerned with all overhead costs, including the costs of the non-factory floor functions (product design, quality control, production planning, sales order planning and customer service) and not just factory-floor overheads; thus it takes cost accounting beyond the traditional factory floor boundaries. In addition activity based costing helps in identifying the causes of increases in costs and thus it further helps in reducing costs. ABC can be used in conducting customer profitability analysis.

Despite the advantages associated with Activity Based Costing (ABC) a number of criticisms have been identified. Theorists have argued that the costs of obtaining and interpreting the new information may be time consuming activity, thus it has been suggested that activity based analysis must only be introduced when there are provisions in the organisation to manage information to use in planning and/or control decisions. Secondly, it has been criticized on the grounds that many overheads do not relate either to volume or to complexity and diversity. Severe criticisms were also raised with the underlying principle of ABC, which is that activity causes cost. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that decisions cause cost or the passage of time causes costs or that there may not be any one clear cause of cost.

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