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Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

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Twittering change: The institutional work of domain change

in accounting expertise
Roy Suddaby a,b,⇑, Gregory D. Saxton c, Sally Gunz d
Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada
Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK
University at Buffalo, SUNY, 331 Baldy, North Campus, Buffalo, NY 14260, USA
School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1, Canada

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: This paper develops an endogenous model of institutional and professional domain change. Traditional
Received 28 September 2012 accounts of domain change focus attention on how professional expertise is extended to new areas of
Revised 12 May 2015 practice. This form of domain extension is typically both deliberate and contested. However, domain
Accepted 14 July 2015
change can also occur in a somewhat quotidian and uncontested fashion when professional expertise
Available online 25 July 2015
is extended intra-organizationally. We analyze the ways in which the domain of accounting expertise
is reconstituted in new social media – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – in Big 4 accounting firms.
Using content analysis and interview data we show how social media professionals, in pursuing their
own professional project, generate change in the professional domain of accountancy. Our analysis
demonstrates that the institutional work of domain change occurs through three related activities:
boundary work, rhetorical work and the construction of the embedded actor.
Ó 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction insight of this research is that changes in the domain of accounting

expertise do not typically occur as a radical and strategic change
How do changes in professional expertise occur? In the field of but, rather, occur incrementally as pre-existing accounting prac-
accounting, considerable research has demonstrated how ‘‘profes- tices and terms are gradually applied to new regulatory spaces
sionalism’’ as a construct has shifted over time (e.g., (Young, 1994, 1995).
Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 1998, 2000, 2001; Coffey, This line of research offers useful insight into the endogenous
1994; Covaleski, Dirsmith, Heian, & Samuel, 1998; Empson, 2004; and largely routine ways in which the domain of accounting exper-
Grey, 1994, 1998; Pentland, 1993). Much of this research demon- tise and techniques of rationalization have become expanded and
strates a movement away from professionalism as a elaborated in contemporary society (Meyer, 1986). Indeed, the pro-
normative-ethical construct and toward professionalism as an cess by which the domain of accounting has become diffused in
expression of jurisdictional or technical expertise (e.g., Brint, modern society illustrates many of the key dynamics of institu-
1996). Similar research shows that these changes occur as account- tional work (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006), or the process by which
ing work shifts to new domains of practice, such as large organiza- the habitual practices of individual and collective actors engaged
tions (Suddaby, Gendron, & Lam, 2009) or trans-national in somewhat routine interactions contribute to macro-level social
organizational fields (Suddaby, Cooper, & Greenwood, 2007). change.
A related stream of research has demonstrated how the domain But these accounts have been criticized for neglecting the
of accounting, as jurisdictional claim to expertise (Miller, 1994), micro-level dynamics through which domain extension occurs
has become reconstituted over time. Much of this research has (Robson, 1991). More specifically, as Potter (2005) and West
focused on the discursive strategies through which accounting (2003) observe, what remains unexamined is how small groups
expertise and technology is applied to new areas of practice of technical experts can generate changes in how accounting
(Miller, 1991; Hopwood, 1987; Power, 1997; Young, 1994). A key expertise is represented and legitimated, not through processes
of overt contests over professional jurisdiction (i.e. Abbott, 1988),
⇑ Corresponding author at: Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, University of but rather through relatively routine commitments from the
Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada. day-to-day actions of individual professionals pursuing their own
E-mail addresses: (R. Suddaby), relatively isolated professional projects at work.
(G.D. Saxton), (S. Gunz).
0361-3682/Ó 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 53

We seek to answer this call by studying the process by which new knowledge claims, our analysis demonstrates that accounting
accounting expertise becomes reconstructed and promoted within professionalism is extended within the organization by generating
the elite Big Four accounting firms as a result of the adoption of new ways in which claims to accounting expertise can legitimately
new social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (‘‘New be made. This form of domain change is not so much about extend-
Media’’). The introduction of the Internet in the latter years of ing professionalism to new jurisdictions as it is about extending
the twentieth century has generated a proliferation of new forms the range of performative activities through which claims to pro-
of media that have radically altered the ways in which human fessional expertise can occur.
interaction occurs (Agre, 2003; Castells, 2001, 2009). The adoption We present our paper in four sections. The next section outlines
of new communicative technologies, like the adoption of new audit the theoretical basis for our contention that New Media provides a
technologies (Fischer, 1996), creates the opportunity for members disruptive change in the domain of accounting expertise. We
of an institution, such as a profession, to engage in forms of insti- briefly review the literature on domain change and jurisdictional
tutional work, defined as the relatively mundane actions of indi- competition in the professions, and then review the history of
viduals and collectives to create, maintain or alter an institution emerging modes of new media and summarize their various char-
(Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006). The rapid emergence of New Media acteristics. In the second section we describe our research design
provides a useful natural experiment within which the fabric of a and methods. Our results are presented in the third section and
social institution – i.e. the domain of accounting expertise – is we conclude with a discussion of our theoretical insights and the
‘‘torn’’ and reconstructed. broader implications of our study.
We apply the conceptual lens of ‘institutional work’ to present a
theoretical model of practice-driven domain change in accounting.
Our interest is in understanding how new social media creates an 2. Theoretical context
opportunity to reconfigure accounting expertise in new ways. That
is, our interest is in understanding how New Media creates the lim- 2.1. Existing approaches to domain change in accounting
inal space for certain professionals, even non-accounting profes-
sionals, to engage in practices and actions that have the A growing stream of research has come to understand account-
unintended consequence of extending domain by redefining pro- ing as a social and highly institutionalized practice (Hopwood,
fessional expertise. 1992; Miller, 1994). From this perspective, the expansion of
Our theoretical argument differs from existing theories of accounting in society does not represent a functional need for tech-
domain change in three important ways. First, most prior research nical accounting skills but rather a form of cultural rationalization
on domain change in accounting has focused on examining how in which the existence of accountants and accounting practices
accounting expertise is extended to new jurisdictions or areas of reflects cultural claims to legitimacy and rationality (Meyer,
practice – e.g., financial instruments (Young, 1996) and environ- 1986). The global expansion of the accounting profession, thus, is
mentalism (Power, 1997). This research adopts the traditional explained by the growing cultural legitimacy that accountancy
post-Enlightenment notion of professional expertise as being con- represents in an increasingly rationalized society.
stituted, largely, by the content and spread of knowledge. We build An important extension of this research has focused on under-
on these studies by focusing instead on how our understanding of standing how and why the domain of accounting has been
professionalism changes when the domain of accounting is extended and reconstituted in contemporary society (Miller,
extended, not to a new practice area, but instead to the somewhat 1994; Miller & Rose, 1990). A recurring theme of the research is
ambiguous public domain of social media. In this case, we observe that the accounting domain is continually in flux, constantly
that domain extension is less concerned with the substantive con- extending both in ‘‘power and scope’’ (Hoskin & Macve, 1994:
tent of expert knowledge and, instead, more concerned with how 92). Thus, much early research focused on documenting the expan-
claims to professional expertise can be made and who has authority sion of accounting rationality to new organizational and societal
to make them. That is, we observe that domain change not only settings (Gowler & Legge, 1983; Loft, 1986) including restructuring
occurs by colonizing new areas of practice, but also occurs by individuals as ‘‘calculable selves’’ (Miller, 1992).
changing the ways in which claims to professional expertise can More recently, research has turned to understanding the pro-
legitimately be enacted. cesses by which domain expansion occurs. A key finding is the
Second, while most accounts of domain change adopt, either importance of how spaces and issues become framed or problema-
explicitly or implicitly, the notion of different occupational groups tized in accounting language (Young, 1994). Once issues have been
engaging in overtly strategic jurisdictional conflict over claims to reframed as accounting problems, they gain legitimacy and entry
professional expertise (e.g., Abbott, 1988), our analysis focuses on into the regulatory space of an organization – i.e., a corporation,
domain change that occurs intra-organizationally in a largely a collective or a nation-state. Such expansion typically occurs
uncontested and unanticipated manner through the quotidian through the adoption of specialized language – vocabularies and
interactions of traditional professionals (e.g., accountants) and terms that comprise ‘‘rationales’’ that ‘‘mobilize the calculative
non-traditional professionals (e.g., social media experts), each pur- technologies of accounting’’ (Miller, 1994: 3). Collectively, these
suing their own professional project in the context of a large orga- studies have generated significant insights into why, where and
nization. In this case we do not observe overt conflict over how the domain of accounting expertise has permeated broad
jurisdiction, but rather a willing secession by accountants of their areas of contemporary society. More importantly, this research
autonomy over defining professional domain to social media points to the often deleterious and unintended consequences of
experts and a concomitant change in how claims of professional domain expansion. What is missing from these accounts, however,
expertise are enacted in new media. is an understanding of how domain expansion occurs within the
Finally, our analysis demonstrates the critically important role accounting profession itself. That is, while prior research has ably
of large and complex professional organizations in enacting – i.e., demonstrated how accounting rationality has expanded in society
mediating, enabling, and facilitating – domain change in the generally, we have little analysis of how new professional practices
accounting profession. As large professional firms have increas- and the expertise of adjacent professionals get absorbed within the
ingly become the sites of professionalization, so too have large pro- broader domain of accounting professionalism.
fessional firms become the sites within which domain change occurs. Traditional sociological theory suggests that professional
That is, rather than extending accounting professionalism to assert domain expansion (termed ‘‘jurisdictional expansion’’) occurs at
54 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

macro-organizational levels of analysis, typically through the work ambiguous domains such as governments and large organizations
of professional associations (Abbott, 1988). Abbott also argues that (Cooper & Robson, 2006), researchers observe that expert domain
jurisdictional expansion invariably encourages overt conflict change shifts from claims about the content of professional exper-
between different professions and results in a power-hierarchy tise to claims about how claims of professional expertise can be
or status order of professions. Domain expansion, in this traditional legitimately enacted (Noordegraaf, 2007). That is, as large organi-
view is overt, instrumental and highly contested. zations increasingly become the generators of professionalism,
Accounting research, however, offers an alternative view of how domain claim initiatives are less about asking ‘what constitutes
professionals expand their domain of practice. Substantial professional expertise?’ and more about asking ‘how can claims
research, for example, argues that professional expertise is consti- to professional expertise be legitimately made or performed in this
tuted, largely, at the firm or organizational level rather than at the context?’ (Hodgson, 2005).
institute or field level of analysis (Cooper & Robson, 2006; We propose to correct this deficiency by documenting the ways
Covaleski et al., 1998). Similarly, accounting theorists who adopt in which the domain of accounting expertise is discursively recon-
an institutional perspective have suggested that processes of structed through, and as a result of, the disruptive innovation of
accounting change are fundamentally different from those in other New Media. We view the introduction of new media as a signifi-
professions in that, rather than occurring through overt conflict cant disruption in the institutional fabric of accounting profession-
and change, they result from a much more nuanced and gradual alism, but one that offers a rare opportunity to directly observe the
shift in cognition, a process sometimes termed ‘‘institutional think- mechanisms by which accounting expertise is extended and recon-
ing’’ (Potter, 2005; Young, 1996). structed, not through overt contestation over jurisdiction, but
rather through the institutional work of professional domain
2.2. Domain expansion as institutional work construction.
We focus on the elite Big Four accounting firms and their inter-
This view of the process of domain expansion can be seen as an action with New Media in an effort to understand the nuanced
illustrative example of institutional work (Lawrence & Suddaby, ways in which domain extension occurs. We use content analysis
2006). Defined as the process by which institutions are created, and interview data to demonstrate how firms engage in varied
maintained and changed, the concept of institutional work has practices designed to reconstitute accounting expertise in New
gained traction because it offers a counterpoint to existing expla- Media. Before presenting our study, however, we first deconstruct
nations of institutional change which have been criticized for our core research question of how changes in professional exper-
adopting macro level points of view in which highly agentic or ‘‘hy- tise occur into three subsidiary questions that integrate under-
permuscular’’ actors (known as ‘‘institutional entrepreneurs’’) gen- standings of professional domain extension and institutional work.
erate profound social change by restructuring organizational fields
through highly contested and dramatic conflicts (see Delbridge &
Edwards, 2013; Powell & Colyvas, 2008; Suddaby, 2010 for 3. Research questions
The process of domain expansion shares many of the conceptual 3.1. RQ1: Domain extension as boundary work
attributes of institutional work. Foremost, accounting practices are
seen to expand to new domains through relatively quotidian and A key contribution of research on institutional work has been to
mundane micro-level practices, rather than through the highly offer insight into the process by which actors construct, erode and
contested and macro-level jurisdictional conflicts described in bridge boundaries, a process often referred to as ‘‘boundary work’’
sociological theories of the professions. In this sense, domain (Gieryn, 1999). Within the context of the professions, boundary
extension is somewhat invisible because it is embedded in routine work has typically referred to the process by which actors, typi-
practices of the profession. Similarly, one of the key mechanisms of cally professional associations, construct occupational closure or
domain expansion is understood to occur through the discourse or socially legitimated claims to exclusive expertise. Occupational
the extension of accounting language and terminology to new boundary claims by professions are typically constructed through
spheres of social activity. Institutional work, similarly, occurs lar- associated claims to class (Friedson, 1986; Larson, 1977), exclusive
gely through the application of different vocabularies of motive knowledge or technical expertise (Abbott, 1988) or power
(Mills, 1940), rhetoric (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005) or linguistic (Johnson, 1972) that become formalized through regulatory bar-
claims (Oakes, Townley, & Cooper, 1998) that reframe existing gains with other powerful institutions such as the state (Cooper,
social practices in ways that make them seem more rational and, Lowe, Puxty, & Willmott, 1987).
therefore, more legitimate. Historically, research on boundary work has largely focused on
Adopting an institutional work lens helps us to identify an how occupational boundaries are constructed and maintained.
important means of enhancing our understanding of domain Considerably less research has been devoted to understanding
extension in accounting. Most extant research on domain exten- how occupational boundaries in the professions are eroded or
sion has focused on how various techniques of accounting have changed. One promising stream of research points to the impor-
been used to extend accounting expertise into a wide variety of tance of exogenous shocks or disruptive events such as the intru-
social domains. Few studies, however, have examined the institu- sion of a new institutional actor such as a new profession
tional work involved in domain extension of accounting expertise (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005), a new regulatory space
by problematizing and discursively reconstructing the accounting (Lawrence, 1999) or a new set of technical practices as a key trigger
profession itself. for boundary change. Few of these studies, however, offer explana-
Similarly, most studies of domain extension in accounting have tory accounts of how new boundaries are reconstructed after the
focused on how the content of accounting expertise changes as it is exogenous trigger event.
adapted from one empirical context (e.g., manufacturing) to A second stream of research, though not acknowledged as a
another (e.g., environmental auditing). But accounting expertise, form of institutional work, describes the process by which the
or any professional expertise for that matter, is not entirely consti- jurisdictional space of a profession becomes incrementally rede-
tuted by the content of its knowledge. Professional expertise is also fined (Barrett & Gendron, 2006; Gendron & Barrett, 2004;
constituted by how those claims to expertise can legitimately be O’Dwyer, 2011; O’Dwyer, Owen, & Unerman, 2011; Suddaby &
made. As the sites of professionalization increasingly shift to Greenwood, 2001). Young (1994, 1995), for example, analyzes
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 55

the way in which professional domain expansion has occurred in Covaleski, Dirsmith, & Rittenberg, 2003; Gendron & Suddaby,
accounting. In contrast to prior research, the boundary work of 2004).
domain expansion occurs largely endogenously through a shift in Claims of legitimacy based on ethics in the professions are typ-
cognition or taken-for-granted assumptions about how social ically stated in counterpoint to commercial self-interest. The logic
problems and issues might be re-conceptualized as financial or of professionalism typically promotes discourse in which profes-
measurement issues. The institutional work of domain expansion, sional choices select ethics ahead of a professional’s economic
in this perspective, involves abstracting existing templates and interests (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005). Historically, the justifica-
techniques of accounting and diffusing them to new social tion for ethical rules that restrain competition for clients, predatory
domains – i.e., translating them across cognitive and social bound- pricing practices and rules against stealing clients are premised on
aries and, in so doing, eroding the socially constructed concrete- an implicit discursive assumption that professionalism is an exten-
ness of those boundaries. sion of elitist norms of appropriate conduct in which overt com-
This latter view of boundary work is more theoretically consis- mercialism is seen to be unseemly because a professional is
tent with the construct of institutional work, in two ways. First, it foremost a gentleman and only a reluctant merchant (Gidney &
offers an endogenous explanation of how boundary erosion can Miller, 1994).
occur. Second, and perhaps more important, it offers a clear mech- A long history of ethical scandals in accounting, exemplified by
anism for boundary deconstruction through the association of the role of Arthur Andersen in Enron, has challenged the
shifts in socially constructed forms of cognition with incremental normative-ethical assumptions in the professions (Toffler, 2003,
changes in practices. While some social theorists have long Wyatt, 2004). Several authors have documented a decline in the
acknowledged the important relationship between changes in ethical discourse of the profession and the emergence of a new dis-
social boundaries and practices (Schatzki, 2001), Young (1994, course that favors a view of the accountant as a global businessper-
1995) offers a clear empirical illustration of how this process son, rather than a protector of the public interest (Brint, 1996;
occurs. Hanlon, 1994, 1996; Samuel, Covaleski, & Dirsmith, 2009;
An emerging stream of research, however, suggests an alterna- Suddaby et al., 2009; Zeff, 2003).
tive mechanism for the boundary work of domain extension. A Again, it is not clear how the content of professional discourse
small and as yet unconnected group of studies suggests that a pre- will change in the context of New Media. A perhaps obvious pre-
liminary step in the erosion and reconstruction of professional diction is that the trend identified above will persist or accelerate.
jurisdictional boundaries occurs through the creation of a new dis- That is, the relative emphasis of managerial skills and entrepre-
cursive space. Power (1997) observed that accounting professionals neurial ability will outweigh the more traditional discourse of
adopted linguistic claims of professional expertise in environmen- accounting professionalism as protecting the public interest.
tal auditing long before the profession had constructed any techni- More significantly, it is unclear what position or degree of engage-
cal expertise in the domain. Similarly, Arndt and Bigelow (2005) ment large accounting firms will take with respect to trying to
observe that a significant preliminary stage in transforming hospi- influence the characterization of professionalism in New Media.
tal administration from a predominantly female to male profession Our second research question, thus, is how has the content of
involved the use of male terminology to describe the ideal profes- domain claims of professional expertise changed in New Media, and
sional in prominent trade journals long before any male hospital what is the nature of engagement of Big Four accounting firms in this
administrators existed. process?
A critical research issue, therefore, is to understand the process
by which the rhetorical construction of accounting expertise can be
extended to new domains. While prior research has established a 3.3. RQ 3: Domain extension as embedded agency
gradual but clear shift in the locus of professional expertise con-
struction, from the professional association to the professional firm The concept of institutional work emerged in counterpoint to
(Cooper & Robson, 2006), it is unclear how professional accounting existing explanations of social change that relied on assumptions
firms might use the rhetorical space created by New Media to of highly powerful agents. That is, prior accounts of institutional
engage in domain extension. More significantly, perhaps, we have change typically invoked the notion of ‘‘institutional entrepre-
little understanding of the evolutionary process – i.e., the practices neurs’’ or extremely powerful actors that possessed both the
and the boundary work – by which Big Four firms have engaged reflexivity to overcome cognitively embedded assumptions and
with New Media. Our first research question thus is what forms the resources necessary to create change.
of boundary work have large professional accounting firms engaged So, for example, Greenwood and Suddaby (2006) point to the
with as a result of the adoption of New Media? (then) Big Five accounting firms as institutional agents responsible
for creating multidisciplinary professional firms as a new organiza-
tional form in the professions. Critics, however, have argued that
3.2. RQ 2: Domain extension as rhetorical work this ‘‘hypermuscular’’ view of agency is inconsistent with the phe-
nomenological underpinnings of institutional theory, which
A related question is to understand how the creation of a new assumes that actors are so completely embedded in the
rhetorical space created by such boundary work is then used taken-for-granted assumptions of their institutional world that
rhetorically to reconstruct the content of professional expertise. they lack the reflexive capacity to even conceive of alternative
The research outlined above not only describes a change in the social arrangements (Powell & Colyvas, 2008; Suddaby, 2010).
boundaries within which professional expertise is constructed, it Prior theory has also tended to assume that institutional change
also describes a long-standing shift in content away from is necessarily accompanied by high degrees of conflict between
moral-normative claims of legitimacy based on ethics to a dis- institutional actors. Abbott (1988) for example premised his theory
course more firmly grounded in commerce. Considerable account- of professions on the idea that professionals are engaged in ongo-
ing research over the past decade has documented how the ing struggles and conflicts over jurisdiction. Similarly, most studies
discourse of professionalism has shifted away from more norma- of institutional entrepreneurship in the professions reflect these
tive claims of legitimacy by reference to ethics and the protection assumptions of ongoing struggle and competition between profes-
of public interest and toward legitimacy rationales based on sional groups (Covaleski et al., 2003; Greenwood & Suddaby, 2006;
overtly commercial or economic rationales (e.g., Brint, 1996; Maguire, Hardy, & Lawrence, 2004).
56 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

Table 1
Comparison of key characteristics of main new media platforms.

Platform User Connection type & quality Type of Content dynamism Symbols Summary label
community network
Traditional new media
Website ‘seekers’ B2C (no formal connections) N/A Static N/A ‘Digital library,’ ‘marketing
Social media
Facebook ‘fans’ B2C (asymmetric) Social network Dynamic messages, @, # ‘Social network’
static ‘apps’
Twitter ‘friends’ and B2C, P2P (both symmetric & Message Dynamic messages @, RT, MT, #, ‘Global message network’
‘followers’ asymmetric possible) network #FF, ^, via
LinkedIn Professionals B2C (asymmetric), P2P (symmetric) Professional Dynamic messages @, # ‘Professional network,’ with
and ‘fans’ network searchable directory

Institutional work, by contrast, sees profound social change as Foundation stopped its funding and all traffic began to operate
occurring not from overt conflict but rather incrementally, as the on commercial networks. Microsoft’s full entry into the web brow-
product of relatively minor changes in somewhat routine interac- ser, ISP and server markets in the mid to late 1990s serves to
tions between professions. Jurisdictional shifts in professions, demarcate the origin of commercial access to the World Wide
viewed through the lens of institutional work, occur not as strate- Web. By the late 1990s most commercial entities, including the
gic shifts in claims to legitimate expertise nor as overt efforts to elite accounting firms, had established a significant presence (i.e.,
claim new occupational legitimacy, but instead as the result of websites) on the World Wide Web.
the unanticipated consequences of somewhat disparate occupa- As the Internet has become more ubiquitous, new forms of
tional groups, each of which are pursuing their own professional social interaction – termed ‘‘social media’’ – have emerged. These
projects, but who find themselves occupying the same occupa- newer social media are distinguished from traditional website
tional space. media in terms of the substantially heightened opportunities for
Again, by adopting a view of professional change as a process of direct interactivity: two way exchange of information, network
incremental and often unintended change, institutional work creation, public or open dialogue and the creation and exchange
shares many of the assumptions of domain change represented of ‘‘user generated content’’ (Jansen, Zhang, Sobel, & Chowdury,
in the accounting literature (Potter, 2005; Young, 1994). What 2009; Jeacle & Carter, 2011; Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010; Lovejoy &
remains unclear in this process, however, is how the interaction Saxton, 2012; Scott & Orlikowski, 2012). Facebook is perhaps the
of different professional groups contributes to shifts in the expres- exemplar of a social media site. Launched in 2004, Facebook is a
sion and manifestation of new forms of professional expertise. That social networking site that has grown to accommodate 1.4 billion
is, we do not understand how embedded agency effectively gener- users with annual revenue of over $12 billion in 2014. LinkedIn,
ates domain extension. Our third research question, thus, is how do created around the same time, is a social networking platform
different groups of technical experts act as embedded change agents in for professional contacts with 360 million users. Another, more
processes of domain extension? recent example of social media is Twitter, which allows users to
broadcast short messages limited to 140 characters called
‘‘Tweets.’’ Established in 2007, Twitter has an estimated 284 mil-
4. Methods lion users who send 500 million tweets per day. Table 1 summa-
rizes the key features of these four new media.
This study emerged from an interest in the process by which the
accounting profession engaged in the new discursive space created
by the introduction of New Media. Intuitively, the introduction of
4.2. Research design
new modes of communication constitutes a disruption to existing
institutions (Innis, 1950, 1951; McLuhan, 1962) and creates the
Our study focused on elite accounting firms (i.e., the ‘‘Big Four’’
contextual conditions for the observation of new processes of
– Deloitte Touche, KPMG, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Ernst &
social construction designed to repair breaches to existing institu-
Young, now known as EY). Prior studies have demonstrated that
tional structures (Barley, 1986) or create new ones (Barley &
these firms assume a leading role in processes of change in the
Tolbert, 1997). As such, we entered the field with an open mind
accounting profession (Greenwood, Suddaby, & Hinings, 2002;
as to what types of domain change might be manifest (Suddaby,
Suddaby et al., 2007) and that modifications in practice adopted
2006) and adopted a distinctly process-oriented methodological
by the elite accounting firms diffuse rapidly amongst other firms
perspective (Langley, 1999). We begin by discussing the empirical
in the profession (Mezias, 1990; Xiao, Yang, & Chow, 2004).
context, then outline our research design and conclude the meth-
We limited our analysis to the North American (US/Canada)
ods discussion with an overview of how we collected and inter-
sites of each firm for two reasons. First, much of our knowledge
preted our data.
of professions and professionalism is uniquely North American.
There is a growing awareness that professionalism, as a
4.1. Empirical context socio-historical construct, is manifest quite differently in
non-North American contexts (Krause, 1996; Sciulli & Halley,
The emergence and rapid growth of online communication 2009). So, in order to avoid confusion between different models
environments is a fairly recent phenomenon. Although the of professionalism, we limit our analysis to North American sites.
Internet has origins dating back to the 1960s, early access to this Second, the Big Four firms themselves tend to treat North
media was originally limited to university, military and other gov- America as an integrated commercial unit in which accounting
ernment agencies. Because the infrastructure was funded largely professionals move seamlessly between jurisdictions. Although
by government sources, access to the Internet by commercial users there may be localized differences between country-specific sites,
was prohibited until May of 1995 when the National Science we assume that the discursive construction of expertise in the sites
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 57

of the Canadian and US Big Four firms is generally representative of Stage 2: The second phase of data collection was designed to
the profession in North America. analyze how different groups of technical experts, i.e., accountants
We chose to examine four forms of New Media – websites, and New Media specialists, engage in practices of domain exten-
LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. We selected these forms of media sion within the context of large professional organizations. This
for three reasons. First, while other forms of new media exist, these phase of research was inspired by a reviewer of an early draft of
particular sites are the most frequently used in North America this research who pointed out the need to better understand the
(Nielsen, 2011). Second, the sites were established at different formal processes by which professionals inside the organization
times – websites in the late 1990s, LinkedIn in 2003, Facebook in were actively engaged in monitoring and structuring the presenta-
2004 and Twitter in 2007. As such, the sites provide a useful tion of professionalism in New Media.
sequence of snapshots of the evolution of New Media over time. Accordingly, we supplemented our first phase content analytic
Third, while each of these forms qualify as new media, websites data with semi-structured interviews with key informants from
are not considered to be a form of ‘‘social media’’ because of their each of the Big Four accounting firms in Canada who were respon-
relative lack of interactivity. The various sites, thus, permit some sible for New Media marketing and strategy for their respective
degree of comparison between new media, which adopts a tradi- organizations. The informants were identified by different titles
tional broadcast format and social media, which permits a more (e.g., Director of Digital Marketing, Social Media Manager). A script
decentralized, interactive and user-generated format. was used to guide the interview process, but whenever possible,
the researchers encouraged informants to expand their answers
4.3. Data gathering when the line of questioning appeared fruitful. Probing questions
were asked when the answers provided were unclear, when confir-
Because institutional change is theorized to occur through pro- mation was required or when examples were needed. In total, five
cesses of structuration – i.e., recurring phases of structural change New Media executives were interviewed, representing at least one
followed by change in practices and meanings (Barley & Tolbert, at each Big Four firm. The interviews ranged in length from 45 to
1997) – we adopt a two-stage longitudinal case study method. 90 min, were recorded and transcribed. This produced approxi-
Stage 1: The first phase was designed to capture the process by mately 100 pages of single spaced interview text for analysis.
which the accounting profession first adopted New Media – i.e., the
structural change phase that occurred in the early stages of New 4.4. Data analysis
Media adoption. Our interest here is in understanding how elite
accounting firms are engaging with New Media (our first research Phase 1 data was first content-analyzed using quantitative tech-
question) and how the content of domain claims of professional niques designed to reveal recurrent broad themes contained in the
expertise change when viewed through various types of New content of the various New Media platforms. Custom tools were
Media (our second research question). written in Python as well as Python’s Natural Language Toolkit
This data was collected in 2011, a period of time when the elite (NLTK) and were used to quantitatively map the relative and abso-
accounting firms were in the early phases of social media adoption. lute frequency of words, phrases and symbols used in various New
As our results demonstrate, most firms had not yet formalized Media by Big Four firms. Table 2 summarizes the number of mes-
their social media plans. As such, this phase of data collection sages/web pages and words subject to this type of analysis. This
offers a snapshot of the early stages of social media adoption and method uses quantitative analytic techniques to identify broad cat-
reflects the earliest attempts of accounting professionals to present egories of themes present in large volumes of data (Krippendorf,
their discursive claims of professional domain with this new com-
municative technology.
To gather the textual data, we began with a comprehensive Table 2
search in February 2011 for all the website, Twitter, LinkedIn and Data Analyzed for Quantitative Analyses.

Facebook accounts of the national Big Four firms in the US and Organization/account Type of account Number of Total
Canada. Using custom code written in the Python programming messages number
language (available upon request), we then downloaded all of the (FB, Twitter) or of words
web pages
individual pages from each of the firms’ websites in March and (Website)
April of 2011 and extracted the text from each page into a separate
PwC_LLP Twitter – firm 903 16,045
file. Similarly, all organizational messages (tweets) published up to DeloitteUS Twitter – firm 457 7507
and including February 22, 2011 on the Twitter accounts main- KPMGAdvisory Twitter – firm 63 976
tained by the US and Canadian Big Four firms were downloaded Ernst_and_Young Twitter – firm 324 6439
into an SQLite relational database via the Twitter application pro- PwC_Canada_LLP Twitter – firm 612 10,670
KPMG_Canada Twitter – firm 747 11,173
gramming interface (API) using Python code written specifically
KPMGCampusUS Twitter – recruiting 223 4412
for this research. DeloitteCanada Twitter – recruiting 2696 44,066
The final database contained 7,050 tweets. A sample of 100 KPMGUSCareers Twitter – recruiting 344 3285
tweets from each account were double-checked against the actual JoinDeloitteUS Twitter – recruiting 377 5923
Twitter stream and found to be complete and accurate in all cases. KPMGCampusCDN Twitter – recruiting 304 5431
Deloitte USA Facebook – recruiting 95 1714
Original Python code was similarly used to download the 262
EY USA Facebook – recruiting 73 1311
status updates from the organizations’ Facebook pages over the PwC USA Facebook – recruiting 113 1921
period November 1, 2010 to July 11, 2011. To ensure the code Deloitte USA Facebook – firm 132 2109
was downloading the updates accurately, we conducted a trial Deloitte CA Facebook – firm 12 121
PwC USA Facebook – firm 97 1268
download and randomly compared 100 downloaded status
PwC CA Facebook – firm 68 974
updates with their counterpart updates on the Facebook website. PwC USA Website 3301 1,284,861
Status updates were downloaded correctly in all cases. We also Deloitte USA Website 12,780 5,794,931
conducted qualitative analysis of the content and recent messages EY USA Website 671 679,552
on each firm’s LinkedIn account; however, given the more limited KPMG USA Website 9169 1,200,322

variety of messages sent on these accounts, we did not download Note: ‘recruiting’ denotes exclusively recruiting-focused account; ‘firm’ denotes
en masse the messages sent on the firms’ LinkedIn accounts. general focus, non-recruiting account.
58 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

2004) and is similar to the open coding phase of traditional Table 3

grounded theory techniques (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Such analy- Distribution of the adoption of Facebook and Twitter of Big Four accounting firms in
ses reveal the key themes, ideas and subjects that are most preva-
lent in a given social media site. Firm on FB?
These themes were then further interrogated by focusing anal- No Yes
ysis on specific themes related to professional domain extension. Firm on Twitter? No EY Canada
Specifically, we searched for dominant targets (e.g., ‘‘youth’’), con- Yes KPMG USA Deloitte USA
cepts (e.g., ‘‘professionalism’’) and new phenomena (e.g., ‘‘celebrity KPMG Canada Deloitte Canada
professional’’). Similarly, we analyzed the relative prevalence of EY USA
key terms of interest, such as ‘‘ethics,’’ across each of the New
PwC Canada
Media platforms, a technique similar to Li, Lundholm, and Minnis
(2013) examination of perceived competition in 10-K filings.
Finally, we analyzed the proportion of words in each firm’s portfo- The firms also demonstrated considerable confusion amongst
lio of New Media content that reflected key topical areas such as the managing partners as to how to strategically incorporate the
‘‘ethics’’, ‘‘virtue’’, ‘‘legal’’ or ‘‘economics’’ using the pre-validated new media into daily practice. One informant, for example,
Harvard IV psychosocial dictionary. Prior research has demon- acknowledged that the firm was slow to adopt a clear social media
strated this technique to be an effective measure of sentiment in strategy because ‘‘. . .for many of us, me included, right, social
media content (Tetlock, 2007; Tetlock, Saar-Tsechansky, & media is still a bit of a mystery on how you use it, what you do with
MacSkassy, 2008). it and particularly from a business perspective and I would say that
Phase 1 and phase 2 data were also analyzed using more tradi- coming from. . .a traditional accounting firm. . .you’re trying to
tional qualitative techniques in which key topical areas, isolated by think through how do we actually use this’’ (Informant 3:1). The
the quantitative methods described above, were then recoded axi- presence of new media, thus, provided a new liminal space, a
ally (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) in an effort to identify relationships ‘blank sheet’, within which the established accounting firms were
between open-coded categories and to discern broader theoretical afforded the opportunity to rearticulate their claims to professional
themes in the data. Finally, the material in both phases of data col- expertise. As we demonstrate, the firms exhibit both considerable
lection were subject to more selective coding techniques in which variation in adoption patterns and some degree of confusion as to
emergent themes identified in prior rounds of analysis, such as the the strategic potential of new media.
notion of ‘‘celebrity professional’’ and ‘‘embedded agency,’’ were
clarified and elaborated. 5.1.2. Purpose of adoption
This confusion as to the strategic potential was reflected in how
firms initially used new media applications. Table 4 summarizes
5. Results the various ways in which the Big Four firms set up their
Facebook and Twitter accounts. Table 4 effectively summarizes
5.1. Domain extension as boundary work each firm’s new media adoption profile. The results indicate that
the sites were typically set up with a clear and narrow focus on a
Although social media was well established by 2011, the Big specific firm activity, such as ‘‘recruiting’’ or with a much more
Four accounting firms were just beginning to become strategically general or diffuse purpose.
engaged with this new form of communication. Our analysis of As Table 4 demonstrates, firms varied considerably both in the
New Media adoption by the Big Four reveals significant variation number of new media accounts that were initially established as
in the degree to which each of the firms transitioned the boundary well as the degree of strategic focus they adopted. Fig. 1 summa-
from traditional to New Media. The variation was manifest in three rizes the data in Table 4 in order to permit a more fine-grained
key areas: the pace of adoption, the ostensible purpose of adoption analysis of the data. Fig. 1 presents the output of a
and the degree of strategic control exercised over New Media. We multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) analysis of the numerical
elaborate each of these in turn. (no = 0, yes = 1) translation of Table 4. The analysis summarizes
in two-dimensional space how ‘‘similar’’ each organization is based
on its new media adoption profile with Dimension 1 (shown on the
5.1.1. Pace of adoption x-axis) representing a generic ‘‘firm focus’’ and Dimension 2
We found a total of 8 websites, 11 Twitter accounts, 9 LinkedIn (shown on the y-axis) representing a ‘‘recruitment only’’ focus.
accounts and 7 Facebook accounts for the national Big Four firms in Updated data in 2013 showed the same core pattern. Ultimately,
the US and Canada. By February of 2011 all firms in Canada and the firms have adopted distinct identities in terms of their overall
US had adopted websites. There was, however, substantial varia- new media strategies. So, for example, among the Canadian firms,
tion in the adoption of social media platforms. Table 3 summarizes EY had no Twitter presence in 2011, Deloitte and PwC both
the adoption of Facebook and Twitter by the firms. Twitter was the adopted a generic ‘‘firm’’ presence and KPMG had both ‘‘firm’’
most popular social media application – seven of the eight firms and ‘‘recruiting’’ profiles in new media.
had Twitter accounts, whereas only five had adopted Facebook. The firms also differ significantly in the content of messages
One firm had adopted neither. placed in new social media. To examine this, we looked at the three
The variation in adoption of new media platforms is perhaps ‘‘firm’’ Twitter accounts maintained by the Canadian Big 4 firms. To
unsurprising, given the novelty of the technology and the tradi- analyze the text we wrote a Python script that iterated over the
tional media avoidance of professional firms. As one informant tweets and aggregated each firm’s messages into a single text file.
observed ‘‘I came to [firm] in November, 2011 and we didn’t have These three text files were then used to generate three ‘‘word
a social media plan or anything related to social media until, I clouds’’ (using Wordle, shown in Fig. 2. The lar-
would say, May of 2012. . .So when I came into my role there was ger the word in the figure, the more frequently it appeared in the
no social media marketing at this firm’’ (Informant 1:1). This infor- organizations tweets. The word clouds thus reflect what content
mant’s experience was shared, generally, across the Big Four where was emphasized in each firm’s Twitter messages.
each informant indicated that their firm had only recently recog- Fig. 2 demonstrates considerable differentiation across firms by
nized social media as a potential firm strategy. content of new media. Deloitte is the only bilingual account.
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 59

Table 4
New media adoption by ‘‘Big Four’’ accounting firms in Canada and USA in 2011.

Traditional new media Social media

Firm Website LinkedIn Facebook (firm) Facebook (recruiting) Twitter (firm) Twitter (recruiting) Twitter (other)
Deloitte US Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Deloitte CA Yes Yes Yes No Yes No No
EY US Yes Yes No Yes Yes No No
EY CA Yes No No No No No No
PwC US Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
PwC CA Yes Yes Yes No Yes No No
KPMG US Yes Yes No No Yes Yes (2) Yes
KPMG CA Yes Yes No No Yes Yes No

Note: ‘recruiting’ denotes exclusively recruiting-focused account; ‘firm’ denotes general focus, non-recruiting account.

g y g g
Ernst & Young USA

Deloitte USA


Ernst & Young Canada


PwC Canada

Deloitte Canada

KPMG Canada


-1.5 -1.0 -0.5 0.0 0.5 1.0

Fig. 1. Metric Multidimensional Scaling of New Media Adoption by Big Four Firms, 2011. Note: In this figure presents the output of a multi-dimensional scaling (MDS)
analysis of the numerical (no = 0, yes = 1) translation of Table 4. The analysis summarizes in two-dimensional space how ‘‘similar’’ each organization is based on its new
media adoption profile. Our analysis of the data suggests Dimension 1 (shown on the x-axis) represents a generic ‘‘firm focus,’’ while Dimension 2 (shown on the y-axis)
represents a ‘‘recruitment only’’ focus. Higher values on the x-axis thus indicate greater emphasis on the corporate or ‘‘firm’’ focus in a firm’s new media adoption profile,
while higher values on the y-axis indicate greater emphasis on a ‘‘recruiting’’ focus in the firm’s new media adoption profile. Also note that the adoption profile shown is from
2011; Ernst & Young is now known as ‘‘EY.’’

Deloitte also stresses individuals (the ‘‘AJ’’, ‘‘KJP’’ and ‘‘FH’’ indicate as a much more traditional accounting firm, emphasizing terms
the initials of prolific authors of tweets). Overall, Deloitte appears like ‘‘risk’’, ‘‘financial’’ and ‘‘partner.’’ Indeed, KPMG is the only firm
to have adopted a more relational approach to their Twitter feeds where the word ‘‘accounting’’ appears.
– i.e., focus on building personal relationships – than have the In sum, our first stage analysis reveals the preliminary phase of
other firms which, in turn appear to be more focused on broadcast- domain extension within the Big Four accounting firms. In tradi-
ing research content, as reflected in the prominence of such words tional media, such as websites, the firms present themselves
as ‘‘science’’, ‘‘report’’, ‘‘survey’’, ‘‘learn’’ and ‘‘study’’. Lastly, KPMG within the bounds of traditional professional discretion – i.e., as
appears to have adopted a self-promotional or marketing tone to relatively undifferentiated professional service firms. The introduc-
its content. tion of new media, however, provides an open or liminal space that
Finally, the firms used new media to present differentiated created the opportunity to redefine professional domains. That is,
images in their substantive practice areas. Both KPMG and PwC the new technology describes a new ideational context that gives
present ‘‘tax’’ as a dominant content category on Twitter, whereas participants some freedom from established norms in how their
Deloitte clearly de-emphasizes traditional functional areas of expert domain is defined and interpreted. We observe considerable
accounting and prefers, instead, to focus on elements of new media variation in practice in which some firms are slow to adopt, and
(as indicated by the prominence of ‘‘socialmedia’’, ‘‘video’’ and ultimately present a highly conservative professional image, focus-
‘‘live’’) as well as sustainable management (‘‘sustainability’’, point- ing on traditional functional areas of practice. Others, by contrast,
vert’’). PwC, while somewhat similar to KPMG in content, distin- adopt new media early, do so with several platforms and demon-
guishes itself with a semantic emphasis on data analysis strate a degree of sensitivity to the interactive and relational
(‘‘forecast’’, ‘‘survey’’ and ‘‘sciences’’). KPMG, by contrast, presents potential of the new technology.
60 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68



Fig. 2. Word Clouds for Deloitte-Canada, KPMG-Canada and PwC-Canada ‘Firm’ Twitter Accounts.

More important for our purposes is the observation that new agency in this arena and ceded much of the institutional work to an
media creates the liminal space for institutional work. New media emerging professional category – social media professionals.
offers the accounting profession a newly bounded conceptual
space within which the domain of professional expertise can be 5.1.3. Strategic control
re-conceptualized. The variation in practices of adoption and rep- A key finding of our research is the low level of direct oversight
resentation that we observe suggest a broad range of institutional of the digital media function by professionally trained accountants
practices. That is, there is considerable variation across firms in the in a function that directly affects client contact. Although the
degree of institutional reflexivity or understanding of the ways in accounting profession has a long history of delegating work to a
which new media can be used to assist in domain extension. As variety of organizational professionals such as human resources
we demonstrate in the next section, this variation in institutional or marketing, research (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998) and practi-
reflexivity is best reflected in the degree of agency or strategic con- tioner accounts (Maister, 1998) indicate that professionals are
trol assumed by individual firms. Significantly, we observe that tra- loath to delegate any functions that interfere with their direct con-
ditional accounting professionals possessed neither awareness nor tact with clients. Indeed, having non-professionals contact clients
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 61

was cited as a key objection to multidisciplinary partnerships in but you just . . . yeah, I think that’s probably the biggest one.
North America (Suddaby, 2001). However, in the case of social (Informant 5:1)
media, the Big Four firms were unreflectively willing to cede con-
trol over their claims to professional expertise vis-à-vis their cli- The digital professionals, thus, appeared to be strategically
ents to social media experts. drawing on the professional ethics of auditors to justify their tight
As noted above, managing partners viewed social media as a jurisdictional control over content without really being able to
‘‘mystery’’ and were very willing to cede jurisdiction within the articulate the specific professional justification.
firm to non-accountant social media experts. None of the social One of the clear consequences of such tight gate-keeping con-
media executives we interviewed at the Big Four firms were trols by the social media executives was that the interactive poten-
trained as accountants. While this is, perhaps, unsurprising, they tial of the New Media is not realized in Big Four accounting firms.
also each indicated a relatively high degree of autonomy in insti- That is, rather than using social media as a mechanism for giving
tuting strategic policies on new media within the organization. external and internal stakeholders voice, the media was used rela-
One informant indicated that, although she formally reported to tively narrowly to simply ‘‘broadcast’’ information. The digital
a member of the executive committee and liaised with her coun- executives were aware of this limitation:
terpart in the global organization, she and her digital media team it’s social media in terms of us using the channel, but we are not
were allowed to ‘‘work fairly independently around our mission’’ using social media to be social. Social media is two-way com-
(Informant 4:1). This informant went on to point out that when munication. Due to independence and legal reasons our
he first arrived at the firm, professional accountants did engage two-way communication is limited, if non-existent. So we’re
directly with social media strategy and managed it through a pro- using the channel, but we’re not using it for what it’s meant
fessional committee. One of his first tasks, however, was to take to be used for (Informant 1:1).
control of the function and distance it from existing controls:
In fact, they often tried to work around the limitation by creat-
when I came here a year ago . . . I would say that social media
ing content that gave the appearance if not the substance of
was fragmented and not one single group sort of used it and
two-way communication. The same informant observed ‘‘so, dur-
it was a social media governance by committee, and over a
ing our [firm event] we had live tweeting and it was intended to
short period of time we changed that and took responsibility
instigate conversation between other users and re-tweets, not nec-
for it; and not to be controlling but because some things are
essarily a conversation with us. Again, not really having a conver-
best accomplished not through committee but through getting
sation but trying to look like we’re having a conversation, if that
stuff done. . .[the professional committee’s] approach to social
makes sense’’ (Informant 1:1).
media was very risk based, right, and their training and whatnot
would cause people, other than the talent team [HR], to basi-
5.1.4. Domain extension as boundary work
cally want to do nothing, to be fearful of it. (Informant 4:1)
Our results contradict much of the extant knowledge of bound-
In fact, each of the digital media executives interviewed indi- ary work in the professions, which assumes that the boundary
cated that, although they formally report to an executive commit- work of domain extension is universally characterized by
tee comprised of accounting professionals, they enjoyed inter-professional conflict over jurisdiction. Gieryn (1983: 791)
considerable autonomy. Another informant observed ‘‘I would thus observes that when the goal of boundary work is to extend
say that I report to my director, but the nature of a matrix organi- a professional domain into adjacent areas of occupational exper-
zation means that you have a lot of people that you kind of . . . I tise, a key strategy is to absorb the adjacent occupation while char-
guess you report to because you’re working on a project with acterizing it as subordinate and inferior. Abbott (1988), similarly,
them’’ (Informant 2:1). observed that when different professions occupy the same
Although the digital media executives enjoy relatively low work-space, occupational roles between professions are often not
levels of professional monitoring, they do exert a high degree of clearly defined and therefore jurisdiction must be claimed and con-
control over the content in their firm’s digital media. For example, stantly maintained. The ongoing assumption in this research, thus,
an informant at one Big Four firm indicated that, up until recently, is that domain extension is necessarily competitive and conflicted
only one person (i.e., the informant) was authorized to tweet on with the intended objective of coercively constructing a clear
the firm account. Even though the authority to issue tweets was status-order between the professions.
recently opened up to include two members of the public Our results do not support this observation. Instead of a con-
relations team, the informant indicated that ‘‘because it’s my flicted relationship with social media-experts, we see a high degree
responsibility, I am not comfortable allowing access to too many of willingness by accountants to cede jurisdiction to social media
people so, a lot of times, the tweets are sent to me for approval experts. Indeed, as noted above, the accountants give the
first’’ (Informant 1:1). Another informant confirmed that the only social-media managers jurisdiction to negotiate individual profes-
people in the firm with authority to access Twitter and Facebook sional identities and reconstruct traditionally sensitive communi-
accounts ‘‘would only be myself and the social media manager’’ cation relations with clients.
(Informant 3:2). Perhaps more importantly, they do not try to force social media
The content of social media sites at Big Four firms, thus, is very managers into a subordinate relationship. Indeed they take pains
tightly controlled by the social media professionals but quite inde- to separate them from other clearly subordinate managers such
pendent from the scrutiny of the accounting professionals. This as marketing and HR. Two of the four firms experimented with
observation was somewhat surprising, given that much of the con- the notion of melding new media professionals with the occupa-
tent of the sites and tweets related to substantive accounting tional category of Human Resources. However, each firm quickly
issues. When pressed to explain the inconsistency, each of the identified the social media group as having greater strategic signif-
informants pointed to regulatory and ethical concerns within the icance than HR and allowed them to create their own distinct func-
profession that required such tight monitoring. However, the infor- tional area in the firms.
mants appeared vague about the specifics of these rules: Significantly, each of the firms granted considerable autonomy,
discretion and strategic status to this new occupational category.
There’s rules around, you know, not talking about a client Social media experts are clearly characterized as craftsmen rather
engagement specifically, right, so not getting into details there, than support staff. Their work is described as ‘‘mysterious’’ and
62 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

distinct from traditional functional support areas like marketing craftsmen. Instead, we observe a somewhat contradictory rhetoric
and HR. in which the social media experts use new media to
The boundary between social media and accountancy, thus, re-characterize the substantive content and identity of accounting
seems highly permeable to this new occupational category. professionalism.
Moreover, the boundary work appears to be mutual, with both To address the question of how the substantive content of pro-
accountants and social media experts striving to understand and fessionalism discourse has changed in New Media we conducted a
assimilate practices from each other. In this regard, rather than proportion-of-words analysis on the firm tweets, FaceBook sta-
demonstrating a high degree of conflict and contest, the boundary tuses, and websites, with a focus on measuring the proportion of
work we observe is perhaps best characterized as an actively nego- words in the categories of ‘‘Virtue’’ and ‘‘Econ’’ of the Harvard IV
tiated order (Strauss, 1978) with considerable accommodation psychosocial dictionary (General Inquirer, 2011). The Virtue cate-
given to the new occupational group. gory includes 719 words ‘‘indicating an assessment of moral
approval or good fortune, especially from the perspective of
5.1.5. Domain extension as rhetorical work middle-class society,’’ while ECON includes 502 words ‘‘of an eco-
A second key element of the institutional work of domain nomic, commercial, industrial, or business orientation, including
extension is the rhetorical construction of boundaries of expert roles, collectivities, acts, abstract ideas, and symbols, including ref-
identity. As noted above, when the goal is assimilation of an adja- erences to money [and] names of common commodities in busi-
cent professional category, rhetoric is typically used to characterize ness’’ (General Inquirer, 2011). Together, the results will facilitate
the occupational category that is intended to be colonized as sub- a reliable, quantitative comparison of the prevalence of words con-
ordinate or inferior to the incumbent professional group (Freidson, noting norms of ‘‘virtue’’ and those connoting norms of ‘‘com-
1970; Gieryn, 1983). That is, the boundary work of domain exten- merce.’’ Our results are presented in Fig. 3.
sion is typically characterized by the rhetoric of demonization Fig. 3 demonstrates that, on traditional forms of new media,
(Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006). In our analysis of new media profes- such as websites, ethical terms and economic/commercial terms
sionals in Big Four accounting firms, however, this did not occur. appear roughly equally, albeit relatively infrequently. In contrast,
Accounting professionals in Big Four firms seem content to main- economic/commercial terms markedly outweigh normative/ethi-
tain the characterization of new media experts as mysterious cal terms on all the newer forms of social media. The difference
Proporon of all words

Fig. 3. Proportion of Words in General Inquirer ‘ECON and ‘Virtue’ Categories, by Account Type. Note: The y-axis shows the proportion of all words in the Big Four firms’
Facebook, Twitter, and website accounts that fall in the ‘‘Virtue’’ and ‘‘ECON’’ categories, respectively, of the Harvard IV psychosocial dictionary (General Inquirer, 2011). For
example, roughly 1% of all words in the firms’ Facebook recruiting accounts are in the ‘Virtue’ category.
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 63

is most acute on the Facebook accounts (both corporate and reflects a crystallized articulation of a trend of domain extension
recruiting) where the proportion of commercial terms is roughly that has been observed in the accounting profession for some time.
double that of normative/ethical terms. Overall, our results support Second, and perhaps more novel is the distinct shift in level of anal-
the proposition that, while ethics received roughly equal treatment ysis of professional rhetoric from a traditional focus on the profes-
to business in traditional forms of new media, in social media, pro- sion or the firm, to a new focus on the individual accountant. As we
fessionalism is much more sharply focused on issues of outline in the following section, the emergence of the individual
commercialism. accountants as business celebrities, is a form of domain extension
In our interviews with social media executives in Big Four firms that shifts agency to individual accountants and to social media
we sought to determine if there was a deliberate strategy to pro- experts.
mote an image of the firm, or of individual accountants, as busi-
nesspeople rather than dispassionate and objective professionals. 5.2. Domain extension as embedded agency
Our informants confirmed that a key component of their social
media strategy for the firm is premised on making the accounting The boundary work of domain extension of accountants in new
professionals more visible as commercially oriented ‘‘personal media occurs around two themes. First, we observe a distinct trend
brands’’: toward localizing professional expertise, not in the profession or
even the professional firm, but rather in the individual profes-
. . .the big thing was, I think, that while lawyers were applauded
sional. That is, there is a clear and deliberate strategy toward build-
for having big personal brands, accountants weren’t, and so the
ing an individual professional’s ‘‘personal brand’’ around
hardest thing when I first started in professional services was
distinctive expert knowledge. Secondly, the content of expert
trying to get [accountants] to even speak to the media, right?
knowledge is not the traditional expertise around distinct ele-
It just wasn’t a culture where people wanted that visibility,
ments of accounting practice, such as audit, tax or accounting
and the ones that did were not always. . .didn’t always sit so
but rather is constructed around distinct industry context. That
well with the culture of the firm, right. (Informant 4:2)
is, expert knowledge is largely focused in industry-specific exper-
A second informant at another Big Four firm also used the term tise such as mining, technology, manufacturing and related
‘‘personal brand’’ in describing their strategy of using social media contexts.
to promote individual accounting professionals as businesspeople To address the question of how the discourse of accounting
in order to overcome the inherent reluctance of accounting firms expertise is being reconstructed in new media, we conducted a
to directly solicit business: thematic content analysis of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook mes-
sages. Focusing explicitly on those messages that contain both
you know, as a professional services firm, we’re a bit risk averse.
strong ‘‘personalization’’ content as well as content focused on pro-
We have to keep arms-length distance. We have to use our peo-
fessionalism, we identified four distinct categories of messages
ple to help market our stuff. . .there’s a bit more regulation in
used to promote individual professionals within New Media. We
my role, and we’re trying to. . .we’ve been trying to work around
term these four themes, respectively, ‘‘press,’’ ‘‘new hire,’’ ‘‘exper-
that by elevating our people. . .. (Informant 2:1)
tise,’’ and ‘‘kudos.’’ The essential elements of each category, along
The media executives were consistent in pointing out that the with representative quotes, are summarized in Table 5. We elabo-
image of the professional that they were trying to cultivate had less rate these categories below.
to do with general expertise in accounting and more to do with The ‘‘press’’ message is used to publicize the activities of a
projecting a personal brand of being an involved and connected specific employee on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. The messages
business leader. almost always include links to other Web content such as videos,
A third informant indicated that a key part of their LinkedIn pictures, reports or interviews. The author of the message is nearly
strategy is around cultivating this image: ‘‘We have developed a always the firm that employs the individual professional, and the
three-part training series . . . to help partners build their brand. content of the message is typically devoted to promoting
Part one is focused on customizing their profile, making sure it firm-level expertise in a substantive area of practice. The messages
has a professional photo, as well as a full description of experience are clearly used to construct an image of both the individual pro-
and skills, etc. The next part is focused on showing them how to fessional and the firm as having considerable facility in
follow core people, groups, and companies that are relevant to multi-media in addition to promoting the individual professional’s
their business . . . and then the third advanced part is focused on expert knowledge.
showing them how to proactively activate their profile, including The ‘‘new hire’’ message is most common on LinkedIn, but can
sharing information and participating in discussions’’ (Informant occur across all types of new media. Similar to the ‘‘press’’ message,
5:1). the ‘‘new hire’’ message emanates from the firm and is used to pro-
Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, the enhanced focus on commer- mote the firm’s acquisition of new professional talent.
cialism in social media is part of a clear impression management The ‘‘expertise’’ message also focuses attention on an individ-
(Neu, 1991) strategy to reformulate the professional image of ual employee’s professional knowledge but contrasts with the
accountants away from their studious and introverted stereotype above types in that it focuses more closely on knowledge
and convert them into a gregarious, engaged and active online content authored by the individual professional. Thus the mes-
businessperson. The traditional image of professionalism is delib- sage is designed to draw the reader to a website, blog or other
erately subverted to the social media project of developing individ- external content that is specifically authored by the individual
ual ‘‘personal brands.’’ professional. The first three messages under the category of
Instead of observing the subordination of an adjacent occupa- ‘‘expertise’’ messages in Table 5 highlight these type of
tional category, we see a concerted effort by the social media messages. It is important to note, however, that there are also
experts to rhetorically reconstitute the professional image of a number of ‘‘expertise messages’’ designed to draw the reader
accountants. There are two distinct themes to this rhetoric. First, to content that is authored by the firm. The remaining three
the prototypical accounting professional is reconfigured away from quotes in the ‘‘expertise’’ section of Table 5 illustrate these
the traditional focus on the professional quality of work and ethical types of messages.
independence to an image of commercial engagement and eco- ‘‘Kudos’’ messages single out specific employees for congratula-
nomic expertise. This theme is not particularly new, but rather tions and occur across all types of New Media platforms. These
64 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

Table 5
Thematic content analysis of new media messages.

Message Message Sample quotes

type author
Press Firm  Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CEO Jim Quigley discusses our global growth strategy on CNBC–250,000 hires in five years.
 Webinar w/Cathy Benko co-author of Mass Career Customization and Vice Chairman & Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte LLP
(6.25) [Twitter]
 Deloitte Partner, John Sizer, is interviewed by The Economic Minute: Mark-to-Market Accounting [Twitter]
New Hire Firm  Mitchell L. Glassman, former Director of the Division of Resolutions & Receiverships with the FDIC, has joined Deloitte.
 Deloitte Canada has a new Business Technology Analyst. [USERNAME] is now Business Technology Analyst, was Associate Business Analyst at
Scotia Capital. [LinkedIn]
Expertise Firm/  New blog post from Deloitte Center for Collective Leadership’s Stephen Langton explores why some organizations seem to be ‘‘hot houses’’ for
individual ideas and innovation and some...well, aren’t. [Facebook]
 PwC’s Shannon Schuyler on how social innovation can drive ideas and help your organization grow. [Facebook]
 Deloitte Canada (BLOG) In today’s world of 7 billion people on the planet, do we have an abundance of talent available? Read a perspective
from Paul Held, Managing partner for Deloitte’s Consulting practice in Canada. [LinkedIn]
 The second report in Deloitte’s new longitudinal survey series, Talent Edge 2020, reveals a looming risk for employers to lose their critical tal-
ent as nearly 2 out 3 employees surveyed desire to leave their current companies. [Facebook]
 A wealth of information related to IFRS: [Twitter]
 Deloitte Canada Find out how we think NFC (near field communication) chips will impact our lives in #2012. Check our our #TMTPredictions
exclusive video now! [LinkedIn]
Kudos Firm/  Congratulations Pratham USA and INJAZ al-Arab, Deloitte21 Challenge 2011 Grant for Innovation recipients! Read DTTL Chief Corporate
individual Development Office Ainar Aijala’s blog post to visualize how the Deloitte21 Challenge helps change lives. [Facebook]
 We’re proud of our very own Leisha John, Americas Dir of Environmental Sustainability, for being named as a Top Woman in Sustainability by, an online magazine for professional women interested in excelling in their careers and growing their businesses - http:// [Facebook]
 Deloitte’s Cunningham, Fucci named to Consulting magazine’s Top 25 Consultants [Twitter]

messages typically appear to be authored by the firm and are used events and traditional media, but also, just as importantly, in
to offer recognition for achievement to both internal and external the digital space. We are helping them learn how to use
audiences. LinkedIn and Twitter to really connect with niche audiences
Collectively, these four types of messages describe the emer- and share key insights so people think of them as gurus on a
gence of what we term the ‘‘celebrity accountant’’ in new media. particular topic. (Informant 5:1)
That is, new media offers the opportunity for overt celebration of
The strategy of creating celebrity professionals is paired with a
the expertise and personal characteristics of individual accoun-
supporting campaign to construct each guru’s expertise around
tants. Such messages appear to be shifting from the private space
business-specific sectors. The social media executives accomplish
to the public space (Neu, 2006); forms of communication between
this by ensuring that the designated guru’s ‘‘digital presence’’ is
professionals and between professionals and firms that were tradi-
‘‘augmented’’ by packaging information about the accountant and
tionally very private – such as job inquiries, congratulatory mes-
circulating it in industry-specific sectors. As one social media exec-
sages, promotions and commendations – now occur in highly
utive explained ‘‘what we’re really looking into is the more sophis-
visible contexts. Moreover, both the firm and the individuals are
ticated advance features of LinkedIn, which is networking, using
able to contribute content. This is in sharp contrast to how Big
LinkedIn groups. . .so let’s say we have an event happening and
Four firms appear in traditional media where, typically, the indi-
it’s geared toward mining professionals in Vancouver. We know
vidual accountant is largely invisible. Firm advertising in tradi-
that’s where they congregate; that’s where they talk. Well we need
tional media, including websites, rarely put face or name to
to be present in that group, and the idea is to encourage our part-
individual accountants.
ners to be thought leaders – post relevant firm content and answer
Our interview data confirmed that the creation of the ‘‘celebrity
questions’’ (Informant 1:1).
accountant’’ is a deliberate social media strategy within the Big
Our content analysis of the various social media accounts of the
Four. Each of the informants indicated that a key initiative for their
Big Four demonstrates a clear shift to industry specific claims of
respective firms is to ‘‘personalize’’ the firm brand by giving each of
expertise. We restricted our analysis to the non-recruiting ‘‘firm’’
their partners a vivid and human online presence. As one infor-
accounts on different forms of new media. We thus examined
mant stated ‘‘What we’re looking to do now is really make our
the aggregate content of the websites, along with the Facebook
partners more real through using things like video to help them
and Twitter ‘‘firm’’ accounts. Note that we aggregate the content
come to life’’ (Informant 5:1). This informant confirmed that their
of all the Big Four firms in our analysis in an effort to capture holis-
strategy was to build the firm image around partner personalities:
tically how these elite firms’ new media sites reflect the relative
‘‘So it’s making, you know, our partnership more real people. It’s
importance of industry versus substantive accounting knowledge.
playing on the front line, putting a face to them so they’re not just
Our results are summarized in Fig. 4, which shows the word clouds
a photo and it’s . . . helping us really build out our partners as
generated from these accounts.
thought leaders and viewers in their space’’ (Informant 5:1).
Fig. 4 demonstrates a progression from traditional ‘‘broadcast’’
Two of the firms have extended the strategy of positioning the
forms of new media (i.e., the websites), where core terms referenc-
firm around ‘‘personal brands’’ to explicit strategies based on con-
ing the substantive bases of accounting knowledge appear quite
structing individual partners as ‘‘gurus.’’ Informant 5:1, described
prominently, to the newer social media (Twitter and Facebook),
the strategy in this way:
where references to substantive knowledge areas all but disappear.
We are in the midst of also launching a ‘guru program’ where For example, the word cloud in the upper frame of Fig. 4, which
we’re helping our top partners build their profile through represents the accumulated content of Big Four websites, contains
R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68 65




Fig. 4. Word Clouds Generated from Combined Big 4 Website, Twitter, and Facebook ‘Firm’ Accounts.

clear references to each of the substantive knowledge bases of the Here the terms ‘‘audit,’’ ‘‘accounting’’ and ‘‘compliance’’ disappear
accounting profession – i.e., ‘‘accounting,’’ ‘‘tax,’’ ‘‘risk,’’ ‘‘compli- completely. The terms ‘‘risk’’ and ‘‘tax’’ are the only surviving ref-
ance’’ and ‘‘audit.’’ These terms are highlighted in ovals in Fig. 4. erences to a substantive knowledge base in accounting. In their
The word cloud for websites also contains relatively equal refer- place, we see prominent reference to a number of substantive
ences to important industry contexts for these elite firms, includ- industry sectors including ‘‘health,’’ ‘‘energy,’’ ‘‘technology,’’ ‘‘sus-
ing ‘‘health,’’ ‘‘insurance,’’ ‘‘financial’’ and ‘‘technology.’’ These tainability’’ and ‘‘communications.’’ The more generic terms ‘‘busi-
terms are highlighted in rectangles in Fig. 4. ness’’ and ‘‘industry’’ also remain and are larger, indicating
By contrast, the word cloud for Big Four Twitter accounts con- increased frequency and centrality of use.
tains only the terms ‘‘tax,’’ ‘‘risk,’’ and ‘‘accounting.’’ The term ‘‘au- Collectively, the three word clouds demonstrate a gradual but
dit’’ does not appear at all. Also by contrast, the frequency and distinct shift between traditional new media, where substantive
centrality of industry terms becomes more prominent and includes knowledge topics get relatively equal play with claims of industry
reference to the general terms ‘‘business,’’ ‘‘industry’’ and ‘‘compa- expertise, to social media, where industry expertise clearly trumps
nies’’ along with more specific reference to the ‘‘financial,’’ ‘‘health- traditional accounting knowledge. The erosion of traditional topics
care,’’ ‘‘services’’ and ‘‘technology’’ sectors. of substantive accounting knowledge occurs most acutely on
The contrast becomes sharper in the third word cloud, which Facebook rather than Twitter. The shift toward industry knowledge
represents the collective Facebook accounts for the Big Four. and industry-specific services is also apparent in the specialized
66 R. Suddaby et al. / Accounting, Organizations and Society 45 (2015) 52–68

new media accounts created by the Big Four at the global level. The third phase, which we call embedded agency work, is charac-
Deloitte Global, for example, has four blogs, one each on ‘‘Global terized by an effort to construct the individual accountant as an
Business Issues,’’ ‘‘Human Capital Issues’’ and ‘‘Trends, Tax and agentic actor in the profession. We describe this reconstructed
Sustainability.’’ The Deloitte Global Twitter accounts are even more accounting professional as the celebrity accountant and note that
heavily skewed toward industry specific topic areas. They include this is a marked shift in the recent history of the accounting profes-
‘‘Business Analytics,’’ ‘‘Financial Services,’’ ‘‘Government,’’ sion which has, largely, located authority and identity of the pro-
‘‘Growth,’’ ‘‘Health Care,’’ ‘‘IFRS,’’ ‘‘Organizational Performance,’’ fession within the context of the large professional firm.
‘‘Reform and Regulation,’’ ‘‘Risk Management’’ and ‘‘Technology.’’ Markedly, the celebrity accountant, although not fully established
Thus, of the ten Deloitte Twitter blogs, only one is directed at a tra- as an icon of professional expertise, represents the early stages of
ditional substantive knowledge area (Risk Management) and the reconstituting embedded agency in the profession at the individual
bulk of the rest are devoted to industry sector knowledge. level of analysis. This is in sharp contradistinction to traditional
Both themes reflect the process of reconstructing the individual understandings of professional expertise as being constituted pri-
accountant as an agentic actor. This is not to suggest that accoun- marily at the level of the professional association or, more recently,
tants have not been agentic actors. Clearly they have. However, the firm.
their agency has been largely constructed around both the profes- It is important to note that much of this institutional work is not
sion (Suddaby & Muzio, 2015) and, more recently, the firm (Cooper overtly deliberate. That is, our interview subjects do not display an
& Robson, 2006). Such macro-level agency, however, does not seem obvious degree of awareness that they are engaged in processes of
to translate well to new media, and what we observe in this section domain change. However, when pressed, they do express some
of results is a concerted, and increasingly strategic or deliberate degree of reflexivity about the role that they, and the new media,
effort to socially construct the celebrity accountant as an are playing in changing the nature of accounting professionalism.
industry-specific expert. This effort reflects a third stage of domain Part of their objective in achieving a successful social media pres-
extension that, ironically, not only transfers agency from the pro- ence, they acknowledge, is to change the way that accountants
fession and firm to individual accountants, it also grants increased view themselves. This, we interpret, as a key shift in
agency to the social media experts who engineer the reconstruc- self-cognition, or a change in institutional thinking, which we view
tion. We elaborate this observation in the discussion section below. as an essential element of domain change.

7. Conclusion
6. Discussion
Our analysis of the domain extension that has occurred in
Our analysis describes a staged process by which the account- accounting as a result of the adoption of new social media differs
ing profession has become engaged in domain change as a result substantially from more traditional accounts of jurisdictional
of adopting a new practice (social media) and a new form of exper- change in the professions. Foremost, it is not characterized by
tise (social media experts). We identify three distinct phases, each the high degree of strategic intentionality and conflict described
of which incorporates a distinct type of institutional work. in the sociology of professions (e.g., Abbott, 1988). Rather, we
The first phase, which we term boundary work, involved the observe a somewhat endogenous and organic adoption of new
inculcation of social media within the boundaries of the Big Five practices and expertise that are considered somewhat tangential
accounting firms. While each firm varied in its mode and intent and incremental in the context of the large professional firm, but
of adoption of the new practice, they were each remarkably consis- which clearly hold the potential for larger changes in professional
tent in granting the adopted professionals considerable latitude identity, ethics and norms of behavior for accountants.
and discretion in their activities. That is, in addition to including Processes of endogenous change, driven by alterations in
new social media within the boundaries of the professional service micro-practices at the sub-firm level and which are largely unin-
firm, accountants also maintained a distinct boundary between tended, describe key elements of institutional work. They offer
social media professionals and accounting practice. The result of an important alternative to the highly strategic, top-down charac-
this boundary work is the creation of a new conceptual ‘‘space’’ terization of jurisdictional change that tends to dominate discus-
within the accounting firm within which two categories of profes- sions of change in the professions. Our analysis, thus, contributes
sionalism interact and experiment with the domain of accounting directly to existing understandings of domain change in the
expertise. accounting profession (Potter, 2005; Young, 1996). Rather than
The second phase, which we label rhetorical work, describes the focusing attention on the extension of accounting domain by
process by which the domain of accounting expertise is reconfig- examining how accountants adopt new areas of professional prac-
ured as a result of the adoption of new language in the context tice, however, we focus instead on how the adoption of new media
of social media. Here we observe not just an acceleration of exist- to promote existing practices has initiated a range of changing
ing trends toward increased commercialism, but rather a near com- quotidian practices that form the micro-foundations of broader
plete absence of ethics and norms in the language of professional domain change in the profession.
expertise. We also observe the beginnings of a distinct shift in level Our study also differs from traditional views of professional
of analysis of professional domain construction, away from the change by illustrating the process by which professional projects,
profession or the firm and toward the individual professional. in order to be successful, must become embedded in larger projects
This phase of domain extension is notable also for what we did of institutional change. Prior theory has argued that the profes-
not observe. Established theories of the professions would predict sional project of accountancy, which failed to gain social closure
that this phase would involve the rhetorical subordination of social at the level of the nation state, succeeded globally because of its
media experts as an inferior form of expertise and a focus on the affiliation with the broader institutional project of the
work of establishing formal controls by the incumbent profession- trans-national corporation (Suddaby & Viale, 2011). In this case,
als over the newcomers. However, we see no effort, either formal the professional project of social media analysts has become inti-
or informal, to restrict the autonomy and discretion of social media mately intertwined with the institutional project of accountancy.
experts. Rather, we see a high degree of tolerance and discretion, if In contrast to prior professional projects in accountancy, however,
not overt cooperation, between the two professions. which have concentrated on the prominence of the diversified
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