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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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Research method Arm’s length analysis is clearly inappropriate for cultural analysis of the kind described here. Instead, it calls for closer engagement in the research setting and Douglas (1966, p. 5) states: ‘‘... we think of ourselves as passively receiving our native language, and discount responsibility for shifts it undergoes in our life time. The anthropologist falls into the same trap if he thinks of a culture he is studying as a long established pattern of values’’.

There is a link here to the cultural adaptation literature (Harris, 1979), but it is not developed in this paper; cf. Lawrence & Lorsch ([1967] 1969), Aldrich (1979).


‘‘interpretive’’ methodology (Geertz, 1973; Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Denzin, 1983).

Necessarily, this precludes the imposition of exteriorized accounts, and radical critique. In part, the goal is ‘‘to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world’’ (Malinowski, 1922, p. 25); in part it is to reflect on the processes through which that vision comes to be and is sustained.7 This kind of research is necessarily qualitative. Data consist of descriptions and accounts provided by participants in the research site, together with the researcher’s observations on activities and interactions and the context in which they take place.

Data must be collected over an extended period of time so that processes can be recorded.

The researcher, in general, does not seek to test a prior hypothesis. Rather, he or she seeks to theorize through the data in an inductive manner. Analysis of the data is itself an emergent process. The researcher seeks gradually to develop an empathy with the data, to understand what they tell of participants’ realities and the process through which they unfold. The researcher must constantly construct alternative interpretations (‘‘readings’’: Levi Strauss, quoted in Turner,

1983) until he or she is satisfied that the representation is a faithful account.

Interpretations must be grounded in context and consistent with the chronological ordering of events and interactions. Finally, research results must be presented in such a way that the reader can independently judge their credibility, as far as is possible.8 The study reported here was conducted over a period of two years, with follow up visits one year and two years later. It involved ongoing iterations between data collection and analysis. Access to the organization was gained through various channels and contacts. The researcher was given freedom to interview anyone he wished. At no point in the data collection process did the researcher express opinions, save where it was necessary to prompt interviewees.

Data were collected from staff within the organization in several ways. The first source was a series of unstructured interviews. Approximately 30 managers were interviewed, sometimes twice or more times at the researcher’s request.

These included head office executives and their advisors or assistants, senior line management and people in senior staff positions (finance and engineering). Interviews averaged one and a half hours in length, and were spread over the period of the research. They were tape-recorded and transcribed. Secondly, access was granted to various internal meetings. Debates were observed and For Geertz (1983, p. 58): ‘‘The trick is not to get yourself into some inner correspondence of spirit with your informants... The trick is to figure out what they think they are up to’’. While one may attempt to move towards an ‘‘experience near’’ understanding in the field, however, the presentation of an ethnography inevitably will recast these understandings through the ‘‘experience far’’ theoretical categories of the reader. Crapanzano (1986) argues that this claim to ‘‘native view’’ interpretations is illusory: ‘‘There is only the constructed understanding of the constructed native’s constructed point of view’’ (p. 74). See also Marcus & Fischer (1986) for contemporary critique.

The anthropological literature is brimming with reflexive discussion of ethnographic writing styles. See Geertz (1988), Marcus & Cushman (1982), Clifford & Marcus (1986), also Van Maanen (1988).


dialogue noted. Activities in these meetings were subsequently written up in abbreviated form. Thirdly, data were collected through casual conversations and by simply ‘‘being around’’.

As the project progressed, the data were repeatedly analysed. At first, it seemed that there was a real probability of drowning in the data. Transcripts and notes were accumulating rapidly, and the material appeared to be incoherent.

This is apparently a common feature of the initial stages of cultural research (Smircich, 1983b). But different ways of making sense of it all were explored and gradually a pattern began to emerge. At each stage emerging appreciations were checked against the next round of data in an attempt to confirm the researcher’s understanding of the situation. This continued until such time as the subsequent data became predictable.

It may be useful to indicate the precise way in which the data were found to give a coherent picture. Ultimately, the analysis hinged on three dimensions: role (function), and level of hierarchy of the subject, and time. Firstly, the data were categorized according to content and underlying values. Opinions, sentiments, interpretations, confusions and so forth in each interview transcript were noted.

This was done without reference to the identity of the person who had been interviewed. The data collected at any one time seemed to fall naturally into distinct constellations or clusters (in the sense that groups of people expressed similar views). Attaching identity to the data, it transpired that these constellations corresponded broadly to interviewees’ roles and positions in the hierarchy. Among those performing similar roles (functions) at a similar level in the hierarchy, there was a marked similarity of perspective. Perspectives differed, however, across roles and at different levels of the hierarchy. These data were set up on a two-dimensional space with role on one axis and hierarchy on the other.

This exercise was repeated on data collected at different times, and found to give similar results, in the sense that the data again fell into role-hierarchy clusters. The specific content of the data differed over time, however. So, the twodimensional spaces were set out in chronological order. In effect, a third dimension was added to the space, representing elapsed time. Studying the content of the data as one moved through time, it transpired that the opinions, sentiments and interpretations of each group were in fact evolving in a systematic way. In this three-dimensional space was a story of unfolding meanings in the organization.

This was indicative of the existence of different cultures in the organization, and some systematic underlying trajectory in the emergence of those cultures. In fact, during the data collection process, it became clear that new interviewees’ views were predictable, given a knowledge of (a) the role (function) of the participant, (b) his or her position in the hierarchy, and (c) the time of the interview.

At this point, the data were analysed from a different perspective. Specifically, the level of analysis shifted from content to process. The data were re-examined to see if the process through which the new meanings were emerging was observable. Some key turning points were obvious in the data. There was a series of events and interactions through which the emergence of the new meaning structure could be traced. These are documented in following sections. Finally, the


findings of the research project were noted and informally discussed with various participants.9 The organization: an overview The research was undertaken in a major railway company. The company is referred to here as ER10 (‘‘Euro Rail’’). It is, and has been for some while, in public sector ownership. It is large by any standards, employing approximately 160,000 people.

It has a distinguished history.

History and traditions ER has its origins in the great private-sector railway companies set up in the middle decades of the last century. These each built and operated a main line out of the capital city, i.e. radial routes and associated branch lines.11 The companies are legendary. They raised capital to fund their projects on an unprecedented scale.

Their railways were built by world-famous engineers who pioneered emerging industrial technology, designing magnificent steam locomotives and tracks and bridges which the world admired. The railways were, and are, a visible celebration of Victorian accomplishment.

These companies enjoyed a monopoly in the nation’s transport well into this century. They had good relationships with successive governments. They paid consistent dividends and their shares were blue-chip stocks. This monopoly position and government patronage, coupled with a remarkable continuity in

the underlying nature of their operations, rendered them highly bureaucratic:

rules and procedures were well defined, there were clear chains of command and formalized systems for managing operations.12 Their managements were conservative, cultivating a belief in the uniqueness of railway management and the wisdom of practices built up over many decades.

There were several fascinating aspects of this last stage in the field. One was that many managers had simply forgotten what had happened, or at least had retrospectively reconstructed it. In particular, some seemed to forget how tentative their initiatives had been, the anguish and stress of trying to imagine a new future, the tense moments at the heights of political intrigue and the sheer uncertainty of the outcomes. They read the past through the present. Geertz’ (1973, p. 19) notion, drawn from Ricoeur, of the ethnographer ‘‘... tracing the curve of social discourse; fixing it in inspectable form... He turns it from a passing event which exists only in its own moment of occurrence, into an account, which... can be reconsulted’’, is particularly pertinent here. Secondly, my intervention at this stage actually constructed a past (and hence a present) for participants; in other words, the theory developed here on the constitutive potential of accounting may be a general theory of accounts.

The company’s name has been disguised.

This is an oversimplification, for in fact there were then a multitude of local regional railway companies in addition. It was only in the 1920s that government inspired mergers led to their consolidation around the major routes.

This was not unique to ER. See Chandler (1965), Crozier (1964) and Gourvish (1986).


Importantly, though, while established as commercial concerns and earning their founders a handsome return,13 these companies also embraced a spirit of public service, for the railway network provided a transport infrastructure much needed for the pursuit of trade and manufacturing, and for social mobility. This notion of public service was significant in the managements’ interpretations of the

railways: they took the rough with the smooth. They were run by ‘‘railway men’’:

engineers and operators who took pride in the professional management of the railway and its public service.

The railway companies were nationalized in the late 1940s. In many respects, this was of limited significance. The nationalized railway consolidated the old management structure: it was organized by region, each representing one of the radial routes out of the capital city; and each still managed by a General Manager (the same title as before). An Executive Committee was established to oversee policy decisions and to interface with government. This committee comprised the regional General Managers together with the Chief Executive of ER and various engineering chiefs.14 Management practices of the former railways survived intact.

Furthermore, nationalization reinforced the public service orientation, for this was the era of the Welfare State. Public-sector ownership established the railway as a social service. Its prime purpose was to provide a transport infrastructure.

Profitability was secondary.

This interpretation of the railway remained dominant among senior managers for thirty years or more. Post-nationalization governments, faced with deficits and huge investment sums required for modernization, frequently sought to contain the costs of maintaining this infrastructure. Following a fundamental review in the 1960s many branch lines were closed. Later, during the 1970s, the government imposed investment ceilings and set out expectations for the maximum level of its support. But, although now tempered with a concern for thrift and the avoidance of waste, old traditions endured. Financial deficits continued. ER remained a bureaucratic organization with a heritage of railway engineering and public service. The railways were still run for practical purposes by regional General Managers, each one of these standing in a direct line of descent from a founding pioneer. They occupied the same grand offices. There were portraits of previous incumbents on their walls. They were, very consciously, carrying on a tradition of professional railway management.

In this connection, Bryer’s (1991) account of the differential returns to investors in Britain’s railways is interesting.

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