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Accounting for creative frontiers

Updated Wednesday 18th November 2009

Is "creative accounting" necessarily a bad thing?

Creativity is central to the human condition and gives rise to innovation and entrepreneurship in a range of domains and activities. Human beings are also deeply territorial – constantly creating and deconstructing homelands in a Phoenix-like dance through time. In Anthony Powell’s masterly opus on what it is to be English, A Dance to the Music of Time, the participants tread and re-tread over the same spaces as they attempt to make sense of their existence. In the Star Trek world of ‘boldly going’ it was claimed that space was the final frontier, but in its geographical and temporal senses, space is the first frontier we attempt to account for and create around, however unwittingly. In our dance to the current mood music, creative accounting and how we manage, operate and occupy our work spaces are pertinent. The frontiers of what is efficacious in the two areas appear to be cyclical and not particularly structural. Enron became synonymous with everything that is destructive about accounting, and the de-humanising environment of call centres with the zeitgeist of work organisation.

Enron logo Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: STANANDLOU, used under Creative Commons licence.

The Enron sign. [Image STANANDLOU, used under Creative Commons licence.]

Accounting is a framework for evaluating resource allocation and management in organisations. It is not objective reality, whose methodologies and methods lead to optimal and efficient outcomes. This would only be the case if we lived in a world of efficient markets in which all prices equated to values. This world would correspond to the Arrow-Debreu Theorem, named after the two Nobel prize-winning economists, in which all market exchanges are matched by underlying contingent commodities within a general equilibrium framework. Differences in time and place, and thus transaction costs, are not a consideration within this framework, so the accounting profession is stuck between the Charybdis of efficiently measuring values of organisational assets and the Scylla of differences in the time and place in the transactions of these values through market exchange.

Some siren voices may claim that the profession deserves everything it gets given scandals like Enron and the recent financial crisis, as well as the tax avoidance schemes which reached their zenith in the UK in the 1970s. However, accounting isn’t the agency of these outcomes, it’s the result of unintended consequences and perverse outcomes of the structure of regulation and regulatory changes. The ingenuity of ways in which regulations can be bypassed and turned into market opportunities is manifold and legion, but you cannot regulate away creativity and innovation, unless one starts to distinguish between good and bad parts of this human condition. So, what is the distinction between good and bad creative accounting? The length of a piece of string or when the ‘perps’ get caught? As for tax avoidance schemes, well we could ‘eat the rich’, and then send the accountants and other ‘creatives’ like management consultants and advertising agencies to another galaxy on the pretext of the earth exploding, but then financial products would be created on the transactions in human flesh and ‘marked to market’ at, say, Smithfield, the meat market in London. Getting rid of one form of accounting and its creative variants would then just generate others. The creative frontiers for accounting are set by the statute and international standards. These frontiers are really thresholds, the negotiation of which can lead to deviant behaviour – which is perhaps also one of the properties of the human condition.

The question of organisational deviancy is one that arises from why firms appear to spend so much time, energy and resources in managing property. The fundamental reason is that land is both a fixed and variable form of capital and gives rise to a set of uses and values, and most of our net worth is tied to property. At the philosophical level, John Locke developed the genesis of the idea of property rights as the foundation of the modern liberty. In the hands of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, these rights are the basis of sustainable economic development. So property matters.

There is also the issue of power and prestige concerning property. The management of a mutual society may look down in pride on their provincial locale as they survey it from the heights of their new building. No self-respecting bank in 1980s London was complete without occupying a building with an atrium and an internal galleria. The question of architecture has external and internal dimensions. Externally, the need for signature architecture with a Gehry, Foster or Pei designed building seems central to corporate image. Internally the complex socio-psychological relationships of workers to their spaces cuts across the human resource management, finance and estate management functions. For the latter, maximising personnel in minimum space is rational, but the ebb and flow of movement and work patterns means that open plan or Dilbert-like booths are not optimal solutions. The way in which workers seek to humanise their work spaces suggest that the deep territoriality in all of us isn’t restricted to the home, but the challenge is to manage the challenge that status being often linked to a spatial hierarchy. Many firms claim that employees are their most valuable asset, but if they don’t creatively account for and put their spatial resources where their mouth is, this claim will not stand scrutiny. If you want to stifle workers’ creativity and innovation in solving business problems, then housing them as automatons in a single open space will suffice and no amount of virtual working will change this. There are creative solutions, but these are not cheap as the frontiers between private and public spaces in the workplace are constantly crossed and re-crossed.

At the banal level, accounting for the creative frontiers of managing financial and work space resources is a question of races and riders. The bottom or winning line, however, will only reached when it is recognised that these organisational imperatives are part of complex systems in which creative spaces develop and thrive.

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