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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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criterion relates to the field observations themselves, can observations be corroborated by another investigator or another method? On this theme, Van Maanen (1995), has observed that the accounts rendered by field researchers employing qualitative, naturalistic methods may be described as ‘‘impressionist takes,’’ using the analogy of impressionist art wherein the viewer of a piece of art sees both the subject being painted and the artist.

It is also important to note what may be gained by management accounting scholars beyond a more general appreciation of the technical, social and interestbased forces which may flow through and influence management accounting, and how management accounting, by embodying and reproducing these forces, may come to influence its own historical, socio-political context. Christenson (1983) argues that what may be derived is not the first-order concern of somehow modifying management accounting as a set of somewhat disembodied practices to somehow more faithfully represent an objective, albeit complex reality and thereby solve the technical problems of running an organization. But rather, what can be gained is a second-order focus of serving the problem solver, i.e., helping them recognize the multiple realities they confront and live, and the multiple meanings attached to and served by management accounting.

One of the principle tendencies exhibited by alternative research theories and related methods which distinguish them from the more familiar approaches is that of embedding management accounting in a wider social context than usual. Accounting research inspired by contemporary social and organizational psychology and neo-classical economics largely examines the roles and nature of management accounting from the perspective of the individual decision-maker or information processor within the organization. The alternative streams of research discussed here, in contrast, typically approach the study of managerial accounting from an inter-organizational and sociological perspective.

To illustrate the broader orientation, Selto et al.’s (1995) field study of a Fortune 500 firm examines the adaptation of JIT manufacturing and a total quality control system (JIT/TQC system) in relationship to classical contingency theory constructs – organizational structure, context and control – to ascertain the fit of these organizational variables and the JIT system. An interpretive perspective, such as institutional theory, might relate the adaption of the JIT/TQC system to even larger societal values of rationality while perhaps sacrificing on the robustness of insight provided by contingency theory regarding the impact of organizationallevel variables. Here the theoretical and empirical focus would be more on probing the firm’s broader field of relations, such as mimicking the structure of dominant firms in the industry, or responding to the coercion of the government, or adapting the norms of professional associations, expressed in terms of a more widespread JIT/TQC movement. Finally, critical perspectives would advance their theoretical frame of reference by characterizing the JIT/TQC efforts in this firm as related to the structural antagonism between classes inherent in capitalist societies (laborprocess perspective), or as part of a larger historical trend through which people at large were subjected to a variety of disciplinary techniques rendering the minute details of their behavior more visible (the Foucaultian approach). With the critical perspective’s theoretical and empirical point of departure being at the


broadest social and historical level (i.e., parts of larger historical trends of structural antagonism or disciplinary techniques) the more immediate organizational influences (contingency theory) or organizational fields (interpretive perspectives) become more tangential to the research focus. In summary, despite the differences between the theoretical points of departure and related demands for empirical inquiry pertaining to the contingency, interpretive, and critical perspectives, these approaches to management accounting provide multiple understandings of management accounting that are not offered by more narrowly focused analysis which centers around individual preference and cognitive functions.

A second aspect that distinguishes the management accounting research which draws on organizational and sociological traditions is its tendency to offer a relatively non-technical understanding of management accounting. For example, it is usual to suppose that management accounting is an information systems that can be designed to influence decisions and to so gain control over behavior. Here, accounting is a tool that not only signals certain states of the world, but also works as an instrument by which certain outcomes are made more probable. This instrumental and consequently asocial, ahistorical and apolitical view of accounting contrasts with that gained from the various alternative research streams. Again, referring to the contributions of Selto et al.’s (1995) contingency perspective-driven field work, such management accounting practices as JIT/TQC systems are seen to be invested with the social aspects of worker empowerment, workgroup performance, and relations within and between workgroups, operators and supervisors.

By modifying the system, aided by management accounting, the fit may be enhanced and performance consequently improved. An interpretive perspective of management accounting would particularly probe the issue as to whether JIT/TQC systems are as much a symbol demonstrating efficiency and rationality to be displayed for external consumption as they are an instrument for achieving efficiencies, thus focusing their theoretical and empirical efforts to inform our understanding of the symbolic nature of JIT/TQC. Critical perspectives, in turn, might mobilize their empirical efforts around their respective theoretical motivations to examine JIT/TQC systems within the context of a class-divided society to aid economic expropriation of workers’ surplus, or, in the Foucaultian tradition, to examine JIT/TQC systems as artifacts of a general historical mechanism by which people are made calculable and manageable.

Accordingly, alternative streams of research, to varying degrees, move towards considering accounting as a social practice rather than a technique. To treat accounting as a ‘‘practice’’ instead of a ‘‘technique’’ is to embed accounting within the web of human actions which are, in turn, constitutive of social relations. The intricacies and richness of social relations that are suffused by such aspects of sociality as symbols, myths, language, status, class, trust and intimacy, comprises the backdrop for the organizationally and sociologically informed studies of accounting. More specifically, management accounting research rooted in the contemporary social and organizational psychology and neo-classical economics usually examines management accounting procedures and techniques with the intent to improve its efficacy. In general, these traditional approaches are problem driven and directed towards improving and refining the instrument


that is management accounting to better serve exogenously given organizational goals and thus somewhat narrow in focus. Designing better costing procedures, incentive contracts, information systems to account for processing biases, and so on, are examples of the problem-driven nature of mainstream management accounting research.

In contrast, the research drawing on organizational and sociological theories, to different degrees, situate management accounting practice within the context of social life in general. The problem-driven focus is less apparent since, in part, the very ways in which problems come to be defined as problems needing solutions, or indeed how particular calculative techniques come to be called ‘‘accounting,’’ comprise the subject for analysis. From this perspective, managerial accounting practices are not techniques that can be abstracted from the general milieu of social life but rather one strand in the complex weave that makes up the social fabric. Political events and ideologies, cultural norms and forces, social patterns of interaction and societal presuppositions, technological changes and subjective meanings that impel people to act in certain ways, all potentially impinge on the roles and nature of management accounting. It is in this manner that a different light is shed on the role and nature of management accounting practices by the research which draws from organizational and sociological theories.


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