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«Paul M. Collier Aston Business School, Aston University Accounting for Managers Accounting for Managers: Interpreting accounting information for ...»

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Current issues Our suggestions here are seen partly as an attempt to raise important issues which appear under researched at present and partly to promote the use of broader theoretical and methodological perspectives. Our argument is that the closed and functionalist perspective which still predominates needs to be extended.

We see the environment of control as changing, we also see it as of central importance and it is this to which we first turn. Although there have been attempts to broaden the scope of what is perceived as part of a control system (notably by Hopwood, 1974b, Merchant, 1985, and Lowe and Machin, 1983), a narrow financially biased perspective still dominates much of the control literature. The management literature has relatively recently emphasized ideas such as the balanced scorecard (predated by many years in France by the ‘tableau de bord’) where non-financial measures (e.g. customer, operations and innovation perspectives) are placed alongside traditional financial measures (Kaplan and Norton, 1992). The range of what is included as a management control is being extended with studies of performance-related pay, operational and process controls, and the whole issue of the management of corporate culture. However, studies of the overall practice of control, integrating the whole range of such functional controls, within particular organizations are still scarce. It should be clearly recognized that such attempts raise considerable methodological problems, of both a practical and theoretical nature. From a practical point of view, there is the issue of the extent to which a single researcher (or even a small team) can come to grips with such a wide range of practices in a sensible timescale. Such work would seem to be necessarily case study based, which raises issues of generalizability.

More fundamentally, it raises epistemological issues regarding the nature of theory in this field (Otley and Berry, 1994). It may well be that applied problemsolving methodologies are all that can be expected at high levels of resolution such as those necessary when observing practice within single organizations.

Nevertheless, it is also our belief that the insight such attempts would provide would form an important basis for subsequent theoretical development. Another potentially fruitful approach is that of ‘middle range thinking’, as proposed by Laughlin (1995), which is both rooted in the critical tradition and strikes a balance between the notions of reality and subjectivity. This type of theory involves the use of skeletal frameworks which are then ‘fleshed out’ with empirical details of particular situations.

The recognition of the importance of the environment raises another important issue, the relationships across the boundary of what has traditionally been seen as


the firm. Most of the management control literature has concentrated its attention at the level of the firm (or sub-units within it). There has been comparatively little exploration of control from a more macro or societal perspective. Although these issues have been addressed to some extent by the radical theorists, the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’ have been seen as distinct areas. Despite the quite radical changes that have occurred in the UK environment over the past 15 years (not least due to the Thatcher government) the general issue has not been well explored in the control (as distinct from the economic) literature. In particular, the role of competition as a control mechanism is under researched: Further, such institutional arrangements affect the legitimacy of different methods of control within organizations, such as the appropriate boundaries for managerial action and the role of consultation and participation amongst the workforce and these issues need fuller exploration.

This also raises the issue of what have been called embedded organizations.

We have already alluded to the fact that control systems increasingly operate across both the legal boundaries of firms and national boundaries. The needs of managing business processes in an extended supply and distribution chain that crosses many organizational boundaries raise challenging control issues. These have been explored to some extent in both the operations management and management information systems literature, and have surfaced in the popular management literature under the banner of ‘business process re-engineering’, but have yet to receive proper attention from an overall control framework. The open systems framework appears to be especially appropriate in this area.

We have also found very little research addressing the problems of control in multinational and international organizations, in either the public or private sector. This is an issue that seems to have been given much more attention in the fields of strategy and marketing, then in control. Undoubtedly a complex field, issues as disparate as the impact of differing legal and institutional structures, financial and exchange control constraints, and the varied impact of national and corporate cultures all seem worthy of attention.

Wider fields also need to be addressed. The advent of environmental management and the attention now paid to ‘green’ issues has yet to impact on the control literature. However, the developing understanding of both human ecology (including issues of demography, population, ethnicity and religion) and physical ecology suggests that wider considerations need to be brought into the conceptualization of the problems of regulation and control of, and within, organizations.

Clearly, these considerations raise new ethical issues for both control theorists and practitioners.

Gender issues in management control have received scant attention, despite an emerging set of questions about the extent to which there are ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of managing. It may be that the language of management control needs reframing to encompass a wider range of possibilities. There is some support in the popular management literature for styles associated with the feminine gender stereotype, such as empowerment, group or mutual accountabilities and upward appraisal. The whole concept of the learning organization suggests approaches to management which are more supportive than directive in their orientation. Numbers of women in the workforce continue to increase, although


the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists. The implications of these changes on MCSs remains to be researched.

Conclusions This paper extends previous reviews of the area of management control and provides some suggestions for further research. Our suggestions stem from the belief that the practice and researching of management control needs to recognize the environment in which organizations exist and to loosen the boundaries around the area of concern. We are also anxious to promote more critical research.

Undoubtedly some of the narrowness of the research in the topic which we have highlighted is the result of our choice of definition of management control which remains rather managerialist in its focus. It is clear that the field of management control is of relevance to the practice of management but this should not preclude a critical stance and thus a broader choice of theoretical approaches.

The area is also under researched, which might be explained by the nature of the methodologies required for its study and their unpopularity over the last 25 years especially in the US. This indicates a significant opportunity for contributions, offering a broader set of methodological stances, to be made in an important and developing field. In conclusion, we hope that this paper might play a small part in defining and developing management control as a coherent field of study within the management disciplines.


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