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Social Accounting and Organisational Change: An Exploration of the Sustainability Assessment Model

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:26 authored by Fraser, Michael D.

There is increasing recognition that social and ecological challenges necessitate societal change. In responding to these challenges a number of tools have been mooted as having the potential to facilitate change at the organisational level. Accounting is one such tool which is implicated in changing the mental models of those making decisions in organisations (Bebbington, 2007a). However, the role that accounting performs is uncertain and calls have been made to extend our understanding by exploring further empirical cases (Bebbington, 2007a, 2007b; Bebbington, Brown and Frame, 2007a; Bebbington, Brown, Frame and Thomson, 2007b; Tilt, 2006) in a way which can make explicit a priori assumptions of change (Broadbent and Laughlin, 2005). Experimenting with social accounting technologies may provide greater insight into their limiting and enabling aspects. Examples of such technologies include full cost accounting (FCA), the sustainable cost calculation (SCC) and, most recently, the sustainable assessment model (SAM). The SAM is an accounting technology developed to incorporate sustainability considerations into organisational decisionmaking and, potentially, accountability processes. In constructing and implementing new accounting technologies such as the SAM, researchers are confronted with two key challenges: first, a lack of empirical exploration within field studies means the impact a new technology may have is not well documented (Gray, 2002); second, the extant theorisation with which to evaluate 'successful' implementations remains underdeveloped (Gray, 2002). For example, use of non-explicit evaluative criteria glosses over the necessary aspects by which people can facilitate and evaluate change (Thomson and Bebbington, 2004, 2005; Dillard, 2007). This thesis explores the potential of the SAM to foster more critically reflective organisational accounts in the pursuit of sustainability, and involved the application of the SAM in two New Zealand case-study sites. In total, forty-seven individual and group semi-structured interviews were conducted over a three-year period. The resulting empirics provided the basis of an organisational narrative, structured according to Laughlin's (1991) organisational change framework, and evaluated using a Freirian heuristic. Laughlin (1991) provides a framework that sensitises the researcher to identify facets of change considered salient in the application of the SAM. His framework provides a structure for the organisational narrative (that is, both a 'technical' account on how the SAM was applied and a descriptive account on what specific change may have occurred in the organisation). However, drawing on Laughlin's (1991) framework presented two key challenges: first, the SAM requires a critical evaluation framework that makes explicit a priori assumptions of change that are not evident using Laughlin's (1991) 'real' and 'superficial' change categorisation; second, the skeletal nature of the framework focuses insufficient attention on how change occurs (Laughlin, 1991, p.229). To address the above challenges and to evaluate the effectiveness of the SAM, a Freirian dialogic heuristic framework (DHF) is applied to the organisational narrative. The human agency focus of Freire's work makes the evaluative framework complementary to Laughlin's (1991) framework by providing greater insight into how change occurs. To date, the application of a Freirian lens in social accounting literature has been restricted to papers theorising the engagement of the SAM (Bebbington et al., 2007b), generic samples of social accounting reports (Thomson and Bebbington, 2005), accounting education (Coulson and Thomson, 2006; Thomson and Bebbington, 2004), and calls to extend stakeholder engagement (O'Dwyer, 2004a). In this thesis the SAM is explored in an empirical organisational setting and evaluated using the DHF. Findings indicate that the SAM did promote more critically reflective organisational accounts. The SAM created a space which amplified the agency of operational managers and researchers to challenge dominant organisational beliefs held typically by senior staff. Beliefs, such as the organisational commitment to sustainability, were exposed, interrogated, and challenged. The process of applying the SAM fostered the problematisation of organisational issues, broadened the perspectives of participants involved in decision-making, and challenged existing notions of who might have legitimate, 'expert' knowledge. It also made visible differences among viewpoints, highlighted the socially constructed nature of accounting technologies, made visible the interrelationships among different elements in an account, and changed project decisions. However, on several occasions the use of SAM was challenged and in one instance resulted in termination of the SAM application. Findings from this thesis contribute to social accounting and organisational change literature by exploring one form of engagement and extending organisational change frameworks. These two contributions provide possibilities for future research and have implications for those involved in policy and practice.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Accounting and Commercial Law


Colquhoun, Philip; Brown, Judy; Bebbington, Jan