Part of my job as a lecturer is to teach and research. Both of these tasks involve communication skills at various levels. To teach I need to get a point across and encourage students to think. To write up research, I need to communicate (in writing) complex things like theoretical constructs. Now, maybe it’s something to do with the fact that I am Irish (gift of the ‘gab’ ), but I love to use stories to get my point across. Why? Read on.
First, this quote says it much better that I ever could:
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ― Muriel Rukeyser
In other words, no matter where we look, who we look at, or what we look at there is a story behind it. So no matter how complex the subject matter we are trying to explain, we can can a story about it.
Second, stories are known to all cultures.
No matter where you come from, what your cultural specifics are, or even what religion your are I can guarantee that there are stories in your culture.
Third, which bring together the previous points, stories can be utilised to deliver effective messages.
For example, some leaders are good story tellers (see here ), or some really complex matters can be explained using stories (see here for how a story is used to explain the ongoing euro crisis). Or to give another example that may surprise you. The story of the Princess and the Frog is actually originally a way to explain sexuality to young ladies. They may conceive it as an ugly thing (the Frog), which pesters them regularly (for a kiss) but once they confront it head on (kiss the Frog, or throw it a wall as in the original German version) it is quite beautiful (becomes a Prince).
So what’s my point. Well, simply put tell the story. If it is a presentation, a dissertation, thesis or whatever, remember there is a story in there to be told. Trust me, if you tell the story, you’re on the way to getting your argument/point across.
In my research work, I write and read a lot about how accounting practices become taken-for-granted within organisations. This taken-for-grantedness might be equated with the term “institutionalised”, based on theories from economics and sociology. When we think of the term institutionalised, we often associate with things like being in jail for too long, or something that’s more physical like the an Institute of Engineers. But, it can be something far more fluffy. While driving to work in early December, a useful example came to mind as I listened to the radio. It was December 1st, and an Irish radio DJ called Larry Gogan is typically accepted as the person to play the first Christmas song on the Irish airwaves – it was Fairytale of New York for Christmas 2011 just in case you’re interested. It is not written down anywhere that Larry does this, and to be honest I don’t know how this practice came about. But radio listeners know that Larry is expected to play the first Christmas song each year. In other words, it is an institutionalised practice. And what happens is something tries to change this? After a quick search I found some comments from 2006 on a boards site:
I hope he gets a rap on the knuckles / kick in the balls for stealing Larry’s thunder. If he wants to do it after Larry has gone to the Great Microphone in the Sky (not for many years yet, I hope, I hasten to add), fair enough, but he shouldn’t have upstaged Larry like that
These quotes/posts above show that some people did not like the fact that another DJ broke the accepted practice. This is quite typical when change to any institutional practices is attempted. Similarly, in the world of accounting, there may be practices which are just accepted as how things should be done. Trying to change these can be tricky, but if we can understand why such practices became institutionalised, then we might be able to foster some change.
I recently have been lucky enough to study accounting records at a company over a period spanning from about 1870 to today. It was a truly great experience, and history is not really one of my favourite topics. But having seen accounting techniques that we still apply today develop over time, it really gave me an appreciation for where present day accounting came from. The other thing that struck me was the level of detailed communication that went on between the accountants and various other parts of the organisation in the past. At the particular archive I was working in, volumes of typed-out reports and many hand-written ledgers, memos and other reports provided a wonderful picture of accounting over more than a century. What really struck though was how bad we are today at leaving a similar trail of history. Most accounting information is now electronically stored, which may be a problem in itself for any future researchers of accounting history. But a bigger problem is more likely to be the dispersal of information across modern organisations. While the main accounting records may be stored in an electronic, but archivable format, there’s normally vast amounts of related information stored in emails, documents and spreadsheets all across a company. This may make it impossible for any future business/accounting historians to follow the story of accounting within organisations today. So if you are an accountant, future accountant or a manager, why not think about how centralised your important accounting information is. It not only makes sense that important information be available to all now (and thus centralised), but it also leaves a more complete picture for the business itself to look over historic records – and of course makes it easier for future story-tellers/researchers.
Part of my job as a lecturer is to do research on management accounting and related areas. It can be a really interesting part of the job and, yes I know this is sad, but I get a great kick of it. Research in management accounting means getting out to (or surveying) businesses to understand for example, what management accountants do in practice. The outputs of research can be twofold, namely 1) integration into teaching, and 2) publication in an professional or academic journal. The latter is probably the main goal of most academics, but in some countries, more pressure is exerted to publish a certain number of research pieces in a given time period.
I read this article (Times Higher Education – ‘Publish or perish’ culture distorting research results) recently, which mentioned some work by Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh. (The original journal articles is freely available here) Fanelli points out that research is often better accepted if outcomes are positive. He is not (I think) saying that this is bad, but simply questioning if the way academic output is measured effects the way academics behave. To relate this is management accounting, it is the basic problem of placing too much emphasis of a single or small number of performance measures. For example, profit is the most commonly known performance measure used by accountants and managers. In addition business also assess performance based on other measures such as health & safety, customer satisfaction and how “green” they are. Now, getting back to research, let’s assume the only thing academics are measured on is published papers, the big question is “is this one single output measure adequate to give “true” picture. Well, to be honest as I’m a more a “newbie” to research (having only just got my PhD this month) I don’t know the answer. But, given my experience as a management accountant, I would be a little concerned that any one single performance measurement does not give the the true picture. So, if an academic has to “publish or perish”, will there be manipulation of the “budget” or “budgetary slack” to borrow some management accounting terms. In other words, can targets – e.g. x papers in n years- be achieved to the detriment of other noble objectives like teaching quality or student engagement? I don’t know, but it’s worth asking the question. Is their a thesis there?