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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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Nor was it coupled to the railway’s management structures (or to action) in an instant. Rather the meaning of the bottom line gradually crystallized around the initial accounts, and the coupling had to be actively crafted. The business culture unfolded in episodes: bursts of exhausting creativity, each building on what had previously been accomplished, and punctuated by a concluding event; followed by a pause for consolidation, recovery and imagination before the next. Successive episodes moved from the abstract realm to the particular; from long-term issues to immediate issues. In each, senior management struggled to reconceptualize a class of activities; then it was uncoupled, or perhaps one should say wrenched, from the railway culture and recoupled to the business culture. Again and again these episodes continued, until cumulatively practically all classes of railway activity were redefined. Later, in the regions, a similar process of episodic uncoupling and recoupling was enacted. In the process, linkages to the railway culture were only bit-by-bit ruptured.

The general point arising is that organizations have different classes of activity.

Cultural change is not simply uncoupling and recoupling, or even reconceptualization. Each class of activity may need to be separately uncoupled and recoupled.

During the process, different classes of activity may be informed by different rationales and knowledge. In ER, this led to a strange schizophrenia in the organization (and difficulties in making sense of the data), in which some activities were railway-culture issues, and some business-culture issues. It also led to strange disjunctures between the interpretive schemes brought to bear in the head office and in the regions. Only towards the end of the research did this schizophrenia begin to be resolved.

This process, however, needs to be enveloped in an awareness of the conditions for its possibility, conditions for the emergence of the particular culture described.

In some ways, perhaps, the business culture in ER may be seen to be inevitable.


Today, the belief in markets (as an optimal form of organization) seems to be firmly entrenched in Anglo-American political cultures, and in those of some continental-European states. Governmental pressures, inevitably, in this view, led to investment in financial calculation and the construction of the railway as a business enterprise. Support for this ‘‘theory of inevitability’’ might be sought by retrospective application of the present political determination to privatize ER, or at least some of its businesses.

As Fligstein (1990) notes, in a rather different critique, such an interpretation

relies on understandings of the present to construct appreciations of the past:

interpreting the past through the present, rather than the present through the past.

ER had a remarkably strong heritage which survived previous attacks. In the early 1980s, its privatization was not just undiscussed, it was inconceivable. Arguably, the business culture in ER, the reconstruction of the railway through the ‘‘bottom line(s)’’ as a series of businesses, actually created preconditions for the discussion of privatization, not vice versa.

For sure, the early 1980s witnessed the beginnings of the sea change in attitudes towards the public services that swept across the political culture later in the decade. Through influential right-wing think-tanks the idea of subjecting public services to an entrepreneurial principle was then emerging, later to be manifested in the ‘‘rolling back’’ of the public sector through the privatization of many public utilities and attempts to introduce market mechanisms in others. Associated with this was the emerging idea of the ‘‘dependence’’ culture, and its repudiation; to be replaced by an ‘‘enterprise’’ culture. Individuals, and organizations, were expected to take a responsibility for their own destiny.

However, the initiative for business management in ER, conceived in the late 1970s, preceded these political developments, and appears to have been a substantially autonomous development in a separate arena: as one of the initiators in the senior management group explained, it was ‘‘the product of thinking railwaymen’’. Explicating this claim would require careful analysis of historical materials beyond the scope of this paper. But such evidence as is available supports the view that the initiative was developed largely independently of political ideas, its private sector leanings probably owing more to the advice of a few business consultants than to any political agenda. Certainly it was not government-inspired;

indeed government was initially sceptical, only later endorsing the ideas (and applying them to its own ends).

That said, the initiative was congruent with the ideas emerging outside, and its subsequent elaboration into the business culture undoubtedly owes much to their development. Even here, though, due importance must be attached to the specific circumstances within the organization. Public sector management was under challenge, morale was low. Many in the senior management group were receptive to the new ideas. Business Management was seen as a home-grown solution to governmental attack. It expressed some kind of empowerment, a potential freedom from the yoke of government restriction, and an opportunity for managers to show their entrepreneurial capabilities.


Concluding comment

The purpose of this paper is to articulate a cultural analysis of accounting in organizations. The appreciation of organizations as cultures provides a rich insight into organizational life, drawing out the expressive qualities of action and artifact. Cultural knowledge in organizations vests organizational activities with symbolic meanings; so also it vests accounting with symbolic meaning. A cultural analysis of accounting seeks to uncover these particular meanings, and to locate them in underlying local knowledges, values and beliefs.

The paper has sought to apply this cultural perspective in an empirical setting.

Through a field study of organizational change, it showed how accounting can be vested with different meanings in local cultures. And it showed how accounting can enter into organizational settings to constitute cultural knowledge in particular ways, creating particular rationalities for organizational action; and in turn how this can lead to new patterns of organization, of authority and influence, new concepts of time and legitimate action. The study also traced the emergent, episodic process through which cultural knowledge was constituted in this organization, and coupled to organizational activities.

The study certainly flashes out the constitutive potential of accounting proposed by Hopwood (1987), Hines (1988) and others. However, the specific findings of the field study – the reorientation of a strategy for subsistence from government to markets, and its subsequent elaboration; and the process through which this realization was accomplished – are not offered as a general proposition on the cultural significance of accounting. Accounting systems are implicated in organizational cultures in different, possibly unique ways. The cultural knowledge constructed in this organization is but one possibility; there are many others. In this, as in other fields, ‘‘the road to the grand abstractions of science winds through a thicket of singular facts’’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 145).

Rather, the purpose of the field study is to explicate a mode of theorizing linkages between accounting and culture. The mode of theorizing is interpretive, getting underneath surface descriptions to understand the significance of accounting in local settings; and it is reflective, in the sense that the theorist reflects on that significance in the context of the underlying ideational system. Applying this mode of analysis in different settings would contribute hugely to our emergent appreciation of the way in which accounting is used in organizations, usefully supplementing the more quantitative approaches to research pursued by contingency theorists, for example. It may be particularly valuable also in the development of comparative theories of the use of accounting in different social contexts. We know, for example, that accounting systems within organizations in different countries are often not that dissimilar to Anglo-American designs; it seems, however, that they may be used quite differently. The mode of theorizing advanced here would enable us to address this issue in a productive way.

Finally, while the paper has deliberately refrained from casting judgements on the developments described in the organization studied, it is probably worth acknowledging that there is widespread criticism of ‘‘bottom line’’ orientations such as those described here, particularly for their construction of time. Far from


creating an underlying competitiveness in organizations, the preoccupation with the ‘‘bottom line’’ is seen to discourage technological innovation and investments in operational capability (e.g. Hayes & Abernathy, 1980; Johnson & Kaplan, 1987).

ER, it seems, has adopted this vocabulary just as those organizations that have it are being exhorted to move towards longer-term, more strategic appreciations of time. In the railway, assets have long lives and the lead-time on capital investment is also long. To some extent the maintenance of the infrastructure is inevitably compromised by its new culture. Quite possibly with innovations in transport, the railway network will be an irrelevance in 50 years’ time; on the other hand, it may not be. The green lobby, in particular, might argue that it is sensible to keep options open in a way that at present may not be possible.

Postscript The process of change in ER continues. The regional management structure is today being dissolved. The operational side of the railway is currently being reorganized and assimilated into the Businesses. The crafted accounts representing the railway as a series of businesses have now permeated through management structures and systems to operations on the ground. The railway quite literally has become its businesses. There are no longer any regional General Managers, no vestiges of the railway culture... or are there? High up on a building above one of the main-line termini, out of sight except to observant motorists on a nearby flyover, there is a residue of the past: a large illuminated logo – the logo of a pre-nationalization railway.

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