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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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Swieringa, R., and R. Moncur. 1975. Some Effects of Participative Budgeting on Managerial Behavior. National Association of Accountants.

Thompson, J. D. 1967. Organizations in Action. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tinker, A., B. Merino, and M. Neimark. 1982. The normative origins of positive theories:

Ideology and accounting thought. Accounting, Organizations and Society 7: 167–200.

Tolbert, P. 1988. Institutional sources of organizational culture in major law firms. In Institutional Patterns and Organizations: Culture and Environment, edited by L. Zucker, 101–113. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company.

Van Maanen, J. 1995. The end of innocence: The ethnography of ethnography. In Representation in Ethnography, edited by J. Van Maanen, 1–35. London: Sage.

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Waterhouse, J. H., and P. A. Tiessen. 1978. A contingency framework for management accounting systems research. Accounting, Organizations and Society 3: 65–76.

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. 1975. Budgeting: A Comparative Theory of Budgeting Processes. Boston, MA: Little Brown.

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Reading D Reprinted from Accounting, Organizations and Society, Vol 16, No 8, J. F. Dent, Accounting and organizational cultures: A field study of the emergence of a new organizational reality, pp 705–32, Copyright 1991, with permission from Elsevier Science.

Questions 1 How does Dent define culture in his study of EuroRail?

2 What was the research method used by Dent in this study? Why do you think he chose this particular method?

3 How does the transition from a ‘railway’ to a ‘business’ culture take place in Dent’s study? What was the role of accounting in this transition? What meaning did accounting have to each of the two cultures?

4 How does accounting help to construct a particular knowledge?

Further reading Allaire, Y. and Firsirotu, M. E. (1984). Theories of organizational culture. Organization Studies, 5(3), 193–226.

Atkinson, A. A. and Shaffir, W. (1998). Standards for field research in management accounting. Journal of Management Accounting Research, 10, 41–68.

Deal, T. E. and Kennedy, A. A. (1982). Corporate Cultures. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Humphrey, C. and Scapens, R. W. (1996). Theories and case studies of organizational and accounting practices: Limitation or liberation? Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 9(4), 86–106.

Langfield-Smith, K. (1995). Organisational culture and control. In A. J. Berry, J. Broadbent and D. Otley (eds), Management Control: Theories, Issues and Practices, London: Macmillan.

Otley, D. T. and Berry, A. J. (1994). Case study research in management accounting and control. Management Accounting Research, 5, 45–65.

Pettigrew, A. M. (1979). On studying organizational cultures. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 570–81.

Scapens, R. W. (1990). Researching management accounting practice: The role of case study methods. British Accounting Review, 22, 259–81.

Smircich, L. (1983). Concepts of culture and organizational analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28, 339–58.

Smith, C., Whipp, R. and Willmott, H. (1988). Case-study research in accounting: Methodological breakthrough or ideological weapon? Advances in Public Interest Accounting, 2, 95–120.

Accounting and Organizational Cultures: A Field Study of the Emergence of a New Organizational Reality∗

JEREMY F. DENT

London School of Economics and Political Science

Abstract

Organizations have long been known to have cultural properties. A more recent innovation is the study of organizations as cultures: systems of knowledge, beliefs and values in which action and artifact are vested with expressive qualities. We know little about the way in which accounting is implicated in organizations’ cultures. This paper reports a longitudinal field study of organizational change, tracing out the way in which new accounting practices were implicated in an emergent reconstruction of the organization’s culture.





The train arrived at Capital City Terminus at 12.10. It was on time despite a delay on the line. Walking up the platform, I saw the train driver leaning out of his cab. He must have driven the train fast to recover the time: the windscreens were spattered with dead insects.

He exchanged some words with men dressed in smart overalls. Muttering a few words into ‘‘walkie-talkies’’, they jumped down onto the track to check the engine. Men driving small electric trucks towing streams of trailers with logos on the side collected parcels and mail bags from the guard’s van. Others set about replenishing water and food supplies in the train. At the barrier, a man wearing a smile and a dark uniform with red piping on the seams checked my ticket.

Moving on, the concourse was bright and airy, concealed lighting illuminating the white tiled floor. People were milling about. Soft music was playing on the tannoy. Large electronic screens indicated arrival and departure times. There were colourful boutiques ∗ This research was generously supported by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

Earlier versions of the paper were presented at the AAA Annual Convention, New York, 1986, the EAA Annual Congress, London, 1987, and the EIASM Workshop on Strategy, Accounting & Control, Venice, 1990. Ken Euske, Anthony Hopwood, Keith Hoskins, Kenneth Merchant, Peter Miller and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments.

ACCOUNTING FOR MANAGERS

displaying ties, handkerchiefs, socks and bags, and caf´ s where people were drinking coffee e and eating croissants. What a change, I thought, from just a short time ago, when the station was dark and grimy, and a grumpy employee had greeted my question about departure times with a crude response.

At the new executive offices across the street I tangled with the revolving glass and stainless steel door. In the foyer, a manicured receptionist called upstairs to say I’d arrived.

The security guard, at least I presumed he was a security guard (his appearance was quite like a ticket inspector, but his commanding presence was more like a policeman), showed me to the lift. He deftly pressed the fourth floor button, removing himself before the doors closed. After a few moments the lift doors opened onto what appeared to be open-plan office space, but in fact comprised zones of compartmentalized activity separated by cleverly positioned shoulder-height cabinets and screens. A person came up to me: ‘‘Mr Charles will be here in a minute’’, he said; ‘‘he’s at a retirement do’’. The man looked busy; his tie was loose, the top button of his shirt was undone, he must have left his jacket on his chair. He was courteous: ‘‘his secretary just popped out for a few minutes, but she told me to expect you. Why don’t you wait in his office?’’ Walking through the office space, I could see over the cabinets. The arrangements were utilitarian. Some people were stabbing at computer keyboards, others were studying documents, others were writing or working out sums on calculators. There were piles of print-out everywhere.

We entered Mr Charles’ office through his secretary’s room. From the large windows there was a fine view into, and over, the station. I could see trains arriving and leaving.

I followed one right into the hills across the city. The office was softly furnished. At one end, there was a large desk, at the other a couple of sofas; opposite the windows there were bookshelves and a cabinet. The lighting was bright but unobtrusive. There wasn’t a computer in sight. My guide and I made small talk – incidental conversation about the comforts of the new building and the air conditioning. Conscious that his work was pressing and not wishing to detain him, I told him not to worry about me. Eventually he made to leave. ‘‘Ah! Mr General Manager’’, I heard him say before he had even left the secretary’s office. ‘‘Your visitor has arrived’’. ‘‘Thanks John’’, came the reply. Mr Charles, the General Manager, entered the room. ‘‘Good to see you again, Mr Charles’’, I said to him as we exchanged greetings.

Settling down in one of the sofas he said to me ‘‘I am glad you could come. I think you will find this afternoon’s meeting interesting. We’re deeply embroiled in cost allocations.

Intercity are holding Freight to ransom’’. After my query, he continued: ‘‘At night, we push freight up the main line routes. Intercity don’t use them at night. You don’t want the speed then; after all you can’t expect passengers to get off the train at 2 or 3 in the morning.

Sleeper trains make their separate way on roundabout routes. Intercity say the wear and tear caused by freight trains, and they are very heavy, means they need to increase the engineering specification of the track. As it’s an Intercity track, they pick up the cost; and they want Freight to pay. They’re holding them to ransom. Freight have responded by running their trains slower. This reduces the damage to the track. They don’t go very fast anyway, so I mean SLOW. Now Intercity say they can’t get back on the track when they want it in the morning. They have threatened not to let Freight use the track unless they pay. Its going to be an interesting meeting. Would you like a drink before we have lunch?’’ Going to the cabinet, he poured two glasses of mineral water...

ACCOUNTING AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURES 335

Organizations have long been known to have distinct cultural properties (cf.

Weber, 1947; Parsons, 1951). They create and sustain particular work customs.

They establish norms for proper and improper behaviour and performance. They propagate stories and myths, and are replete with rituals (Van Maanen & Barley, 1984; Martin et al., 1983). Communities in organizations have particular codes of communication: behaviour, language, dress, presentation, design, architecture, ceremony... The operation of work technologies in organizations is not a purely technical-rational affair. Rather it is embedded in a cultural system of ideas (beliefs, knowledges) and sentiments (values), in which actions and artifacts are vested with symbolic qualities of meaning. The appreciation of organizational dynamics requires a sensitivity to local frames of significance and interpretation.

Accounting practices are a common feature of most work organizations. Planning and budgeting activities, systems of hierarchical accountability, performance appraisal procedures, budgetary controls and remuneration arrangements, all rely to a greater or lesser extent on accounting practices. Inevitably, therefore, accounting is likely to be implicated in organizations’ cultural systems. But how, and in what way? Drawing on the insights of Meyer & Rowan (1977), Pfeffer & Salancik (1978), DiMaggio & Powell (1983), Scott (1987), Zucker (1988) and others, one theme in the literature appeals to accounting’s potential significance in the context of wider societal values and beliefs. Put crudely, organizations depend on a flow of resources for survival; society has beliefs in the efficacy of ‘‘rational’’ management practices; organizations which adopt such practices are more likely to be rewarded. Thus, recent empirically grounded studies (Berry et al., 1985;

Ansari & Euske, 1987; Covaleski & Dirsmith, 1988) have cast accounting as a culturally expressive symbol of rationality, particularly oriented towards powerful external constituencies, moderating environmental control. In this view, following especially Meyer & Rowan’s (1977) discussion, accounting is often seen to be neutral in its effects within the organization. It is kept at arm’s length, symbolically construed as necessary but irrelevant, and, as it were, not taken seriously. It is purposefully uncoupled from organizations’ core technological activities.

All knowledges and practices can be reflexive, however. Accounting can reflect back on those institutions which adopt it. Hopwood (1987), Hines (1988), Miller & O’Leary (1987) and others have argued for its constitutive role in the construction of organizational life. Finely crafted notions of costliness, efficiency, profitability, earnings-per-share and so forth, actively construct particular definitions of reality which privilege the financial and economic sphere. Rather than being kept at arm’s length, uncoupled from organizations’ core technological activities, these can permeate into organizational settings, leading to the creation of particular agendas (in the sense of objectives and priorities and the means for their achievement), stylized definitions of success and failure, the characterization of heroic performance and the mobilization of particular dynamics of change. This suggests the possibility of a more intimate involvement of accounting in organizational cultures.



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