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Cost accounting – a revisit and some history

I read a piece in CIMA’s Insight e-zine last February, which mentioned a discussion on the CIMA website about cost accounting. It prompted me to remind myself (and you the reader) about the origins and sometimes forgotten simple basics of management accounting.

The history of cost accounting – which was the precursor to what we now broadly call management accounting – dates back to the Industrial Revolution on the 1700’s. As the steel, textile and pottery industries grew in England,  economies of scale were realised. Around 1770, an economic depression occurred and many businesses failed. Those that survived were ones who had a handle on how much it cost to make their products.

The Wedgwood pottery firm is one often cited example of a successful firm of the time. At this time, firms like Wedgwood had no choice but to develop their own internal accounting systems as the accounting profession as such did not exist.  Firms like Wedgwood used  what were relatively advanced accounting techniques at that time,  including cost control, overhead accounting, and standard costing.  These techniques, although with shortcomings, helped firms to make decisions like dropping unprofitable products.

While any student, accountant or business owner might have a reasonable knowledge of these basic cost accounting techniques, I can’t help but think have some forgot the basics of cost accounting. Okay, I am writing this from an Irish perspective, but we are not the only economy where boom times seem to have led to a somewhat remiss attitude towards the basic ideas of cost accounting and cost control. Is it not interesting that firms like Wedgwood survived depressions (which were more frequent back then) by focusing on cost reporting? Of course, business nowadays is much more complex, but that doe snot mean we should forget the basics and keep costs under control. I cannot help but think about many Irish businesses who took on costs ways beyond their long term capability (e.g. high rents) who are now either struggling or gone out of business. Focusing on costs is not the only thing a businesses needs to do of course, but this very important task should not be forgotten about. So cost accounting is still very relevant in my opinion.

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A very interesting piece on BBC Radio 4 – history of double entry accounting

BBC Radio 4 are this week (Mar 8th, 2010) and next broadcasting a short history of the double entry system of accounting. Here’s a link. There are 10 episodes, each day Monday to Friday, at 15:45.

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