Knowing More as Knowing Less? Alternative Histories of Cost and Management Accounting in the U.S. and the U.K

Article excerpt

Abstract: In attempting to understand the genesis and scope of modern cost and management accounting systems, accounting historians adopting what has been labeled a "Foucauldian" approach have been rewriting the history of key 18th and 19th century developments in the U.K. and U.S. through new evidence, new interpretation, and a refocusing of attention on familiar events. This is a "disciplinary" history which sees modern cost and management accounting as articulating a new kind of "expert disciplinary knowledge," as well as exercising a "disciplinary power," in the construction of a new human accountability. However, this "disciplinary" view` has been challenged by more "economic rationalist" historians, e.g., Boyns and Edwards [1996] for the British Industrial Revolution and Tyson [1998] for the U.S., as being too narrowly concerned with labor control.

This paper takes up the gauntlet. It addresses the theoretical issues and seeks to clarify the import of the "disciplinary view" and its contribution to understanding how 19th century accounting practices shaped emerging managerial discourses, initially in the U.S. It argues that, until businesses adopted this new disciplinarity, there remained an absence of practices focused on calculating human performance, and accounting was not fully deployed to construct that system of "administrative coordination" [Chandler, 1977] which distinguishes modern management action and control.

INTRODUCTION

We are always rewriting the past, whether through new evidence, new interpretation, or a new focus on old overlooked events. Revisionism constitutes something newly read into some particular aspect of the past-a discovery of new evidence, a discerning of new patterns, a dislodging of old and cherished verities. But what is the knowledge gain? In the flux of such rewriting, and in the contest of ideas it necessarily entails, the quality of the new evidence and the plausibility of the supposed patterns discerned cannot but be questioned. Knowing more may disintegrate into knowing less; the loss of the cherished appraised as too high a price to pay.

We surmise that this is very much the situation currently with the history of cost and management accounting developments in the U.K. and U.S. during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Authors such as ourselves, so-called "Foucauldians,"' are caught up in just such a proliferation of rewriting. In our own view, we are caught in the process of refining and redefining Chandler's [1977] "visible hand" thesis at all three abovementioned levels-evidence, interpretation, and refocus.

First, we have added to the evidence that Chandler adduced for the genesis of modern management by revisiting the sites he identified where forms of administrative coordination were first developed. Chandler specified the Springfield Armory as the place where single-unit management was developed in the context of developing interchangeable-part manufacture, largely under the superintendency of Roswell Lee. We agree on the location, but find that administrative coordination was developed not as a response to the technical breakthrough but as a separate "disciplinary"z intervention. Further, credit is accorded not to Lee but to Daniel Tyler, whose systematic work study in 1832, "watch in hand," both identified the time that ought to be taken for each task in musket production and reengineered that production process as one of consecutive steps to be followed with minimal bottlenecks. The implementation of the Tyler-based approach from 1841 produced a new, managed manufacturing system [Hoskin and Macve, 1988, 1994a].

As we then pointed out, the practices deployed by Tyler in managing the production system-turning all performance into writing, subjecting it to close examination, and grading the outcomes-initiated a world where targets and results were endemically produced from the past into the future. These became internalized by being integrated into coordinated systems of activities, with individuals often provided piece-rate incentives and governed by strict factory time keeping. …