Exploration into the nature of information, organization, and change leads inexorably to the phenomenon of accounting, a profession and practice that plays a dominant role in our present societal structures. In the deepest sense, there is no such thing as "accounting." Accountants are merely a modern version of the tribal story teller, whose role was to accurately portray their tribal community as it was, as it is, as it might become, and as it ought to be, thus shaping its evolution and future.
That tribes have since been organized into social aggregations now called corporation, nation, university, church, or any other appellation is irrelevant. That the primary languages used to inform those tribes are now mathematics and accounting is relevant only to the degree they help explain how the organization was, how it is, how it might become, and how it ought to be. Therein lies another conundrum.
It was well put in an article in the Journal of Cost Management by H. Thomas Johnson, an economic historian, CPA, and former President of the Academy of Accounting Historians. He wrote:
"The Cartesian/Newtonian world view has influenced thought far beyond the physical sciences, and accounting is no exception. Double entry bookkeeping and the systems of income and wealth measurement that evolved from it since the 16th century are eminently Cartesian and Newtonian. They are predicated on ideas such as the whole being equal to the sum of the parts and effects being the result of infinitely divisible, linear causes...Quantum physicists and evolutionary biologists, among others, now believe that it is best to describe reality as a web of interconnected relationships that give rise to an ever-changing and evolving universe of objects that we perceive only partially with our limited senses. In that "Systemic" view of the world, nothing is merely the sum of the parts; parts have meaning only in reference to a greater whole in which everything is related to everything else...Why should accountants continue to believe that human organizations behave like machines if the scientists from whom they borrowed that mechanistic world view now see the universe from a very different perspective?
The language of financial accounting merely asserts answers, it does not invite inquiry. In particular it leaves unchallenged the world view that underlies [the way] organizations operate. Thus, management accounting has served as a barrier to genuine organizational learning...Never again should management accounting be seen as a tool to drive people with measures. Its purpose must be to promote inquiry into the relationships, patterns, and processes that give rise to accounting measures."
Mr. Johnson’s perspective with respect to the role of accounting in a chaordic world is spot-on. In the years ahead we must get beyond numbers and the language of mathematics to understand, evaluate, and account for such intangibles as learning, intellectual capital, community, beliefs, and principles, or else the stories we tell of the value and prospects of our institutions will be increasingly false.
We must understand, evaluate, and account for wholly new, non-monetary forms of ownership, and assets of great value that have extraordinary effect, but no tangible market price or mathematical means of measurement, such as participatory rights, alliances, systemic interdependence, and defined relationships, or else the stories we tell of our institutions will be increasingly archaic and misleading.
We must understand, evaluate, and account for everything removed from, or returned to the earth, the biosphere, or the atmosphere, including reversion to natural elements in the original proportions and balance, or our stories will result in environmental catastrophe.
We must conceive of and implement wholly new forms of ownership, financial systems, and measurements free of the attempt to monetize all values which binds institutions to next quarter's bottom line and results in gross mal-distribution of wealth and power, degradation of people, and desolation of the ecosphere, or our stories will be increasingly immoral and destructive.
And we must interconnect our stories with those of all other institutions in order to integrate them into a new, intelligible, larger story to inform the global community, now emerging, or else our stories will continue to set societal institutions against one another in ever greater economic, social, and physical combat.
We are not helpless victims in the grasp of some supernatural force. We were active participants in the creation of our present consciousness. From that consciousness we created our present internal model of reality. From that internal model we created our present concepts of organization and accounting. With those concepts we created our present society. We did it! All of us!
We know that we must do better. We know that we must do it together. And we must come to understand that “together” must transcend all present boundaries and allow self-organization and governance at every scale, from the smallest form of life to the living Earth itself. It will take intense though and effort for decades to come. It will require great respect for the past, vast understanding and tolerance in the present, and even greater belief and trust in the future. It calls out to us louder every year. We must answer the call with the the best in us, one and all.