Scapens takes us through his 35 years of research in management accounting, initially starting his research in financial accounting where he majored in inflation accounting. Throughout the years, Scapens together with others has been involved in extensive research in this subject.
Together with Burns, Scapens developed the commonly known as the Burns and Scapens framework of management accounting change that explains the reasoning for the slow change process in the management accounting processes.
In the late 90’sThe Chartered Institute of Management Accountants commissioned Scapens to conduct some research on the resistance to change by the management accountant’s profession. The basic study question was ‘why have management accounting practices been slow to change despite the rapidly changing technological an organizational environment in recent decades? This research was triggered by the frequent concerns over scathing criticism that management accounting had lost its relevance and that even the practices considered to be most advanced in this subject were not being adopted widely as earlier anticipated. This research incorporated a number of case studies whose understanding prompted the development of what is today commonly known as the Burns and Scapens Framework on management accounting change.
This framework is founded on three approaches for studying the management accounting change process in an organization. The new Institutional economics (NIE) which uses economics to try and explain the different forms of economic arrangements, the New institutional sociology (NIS) which explores similarities in firms operating in the same fields and the Old Institutional Economies which is a more in-depth approach that studies the impact of the external environment on the organization.
Of particular help in developing their institutional framework on management accounting change was the old OIE which seeks to explore the behavior of managers and the reasoning for such behavior. It specifically explores the rules and routines that shape an organization and how they come about and evolve into organizational practices which lead to a better understanding of management accounting change.
This framework tries to explain the reasoning for the way managers do what they do and why organizations are run the way they are run. Institutions are used to explain the underlying assumptions that act as conditioners for the way people think and behave. There are rules and routines which link the actions of individuals to these institutions. These rules and routines are ‘taken for granted’ by individuals in the organization who follow them in their wake without giving much thought to the source and veracity of such rules. While the rules and routines can be changed from time to time, the institutions, the ‘taken for granted’ ways of thinking may take time to change.
Scapens uses humorous anecdotes in trying to explain these rules and routines and actions using the example of monkeys that could react to something that they had no idea about. He manages to put the point across that these rules and routines that have been applied in our organizations for many years are the main cause for resistance to change.
The framework has been credited with the following achievements.
Unlike other research that had been carried out before, the framework has been credited with providing a platform where management accounting change is seen as a continuous process which draws attention to the relationship between actions rules and routines while also considering the underlying ‘take for granted’ assumptions in the organization.
While previous approaches such as the NIS considered an institutions as given, this framework introduces the aspect of the inside institutions, their emergence and how they have shaped current actions in the organization.
The recognition of the ways of thinking that have been existent in organizations has therefore influenced the process of management accounting change. This has assisted managers in the introduction of management accountaning change that has to be preceded by a careful consideration of the institutions that are in the organization otherwise such introduction would be met by serious resistance.
Simply put this framework will be quite beneficial in helping managers to successfully introduce and manage management accounting change.
The framework also provides a very useful platform for the study of stability and change in management. It argues that while change may easily lead to instability, well managed change is likely to result to both stability and change within an organization. It has also managed to introduce the concept of resistance to change in the context of management accounting. Of greater importance though is the recognition that there are both internal and external institutions that affect management accounting change, unlike the previous approaches that were concerned mainly with external institutions (Atrill, P. & McLaney)
Limitations and extensions
While this framework has been found to be quite useful, it’s not without a number of limitations. Further research has also revealed that there are a number of aspects that have not been incorporated in the framework. These will form our basis for limitations and extensions.
Internal and external pressures
While this framework explicitly recognized the presence of internal and external institutions, their impact on the process of management accounting change was not clearly explored.
One of Scapens PHD students, Nor Aziah Abu Kasim, while on a research on a public utility in Malaysia discovered that there are profound impacts of both internal and external pressures on management accounting change, In this particular study, the management of the company was under pressure from the regulator for high level of service delivery and the management was also routing for cost reduction. This resulted to the disregard of the accounting department that was seen to be meddling and of no use to the organization. Such internal and external pressures eventually resulted to increased inefficiency in the organization.
Power plays an important role in any organization. The powers that be in an organization have far reaching influence on the conduct of individuals in an organization. One of the serious limitations of this framework, and an extension for that matter is non recognition of the role played by power in an organization. Using a Portuguese company, Joa˜o Ribeiro was able to demonstrate that while routines and actions can be taken for granted, the powerful people in the organization can ensure that everyone in the organization is aware of why they do what they do. The introduction of an ERP system was met with a lot of resistance by people not because they did that by default, but because they wanted to avoid transparency and accountability .Burns and Scapens framework thus missed this point, which has been an issue of wide research in modern management accounting change.
In their framework, Burns and Scapens did not address the issue of the change agent. This brought the question of how organizations eventually recognize the need for change and adopt it since according to their framework; people in the organization have been known to follow existing rules and routines without much thought. The issue of a change agent has been researched further and discussed in detail in researches carried out by Scapens PHD students. These have been defined as individuals who can mobilize and create a greater awareness of institutional uncertainties and contradictions and help in defining organizational realities that help the organization see the need for institutional change.
Processes shaping management accounting practices
Further research into management accounting change has indicated that there are broad systematic pressures that have been responsible for shaping the management accounting processes. These range from pressures to remain technically efficient to pressures to reduce costs. Further, organizations are confronted by pressures to conform to the various stakeholder expectations. These have been very instrumental in shaping the management accounting practices. Additionally, internal pressures such as the need to see management accounting change as an evolutionary and continuous process have also played their role in shaping the management accounting practices and by extension explained the diversity in today’s companies.
Future challenges to management accounting practices
Scapens explains that the major challenge to be faced by future management accounting practice is to use the informed understanding to provide relevant advice and insights to practitioners so as to make meaningful impact on the practice of management accounting change.
Scapens ,R.2006.Understanding management accounting practices: A personal journey. The British Accounting review
Atrill, P. & McLaney,E.,2012 Management accounting for decision makers. 7th edition.: Pearson Education Limited