Thursday, 23 January 2020

Developing Accountants for more Creative Futures

Alessandro Ghio (Monash University)
Thomas Kern (The Accountability Institute)
Nick McGuigan (Monash University | The Accountability Institute)

How can we foster a socially progressive accounting that is based on human-centered design? Can we radically and openly discard the ‘Accounting as Art or Science’ debate, and transition towards explicitly addressing accounting as a social construct? A social construct that we feel needs reorganising, reinterpreting, reworking and repackaging for a dramatically changing world.

We have been thinking about the future of the world, of human organising and of doing business. We have been thinking a lot about governance and accountability of a changing world. How best to facilitate the future learning of accounting? What accounting really means in such social contexts? We began to question current economic principles, systems and the assumptions underpinning them. Is up the only way? Is growth the only measure of success? How is accounting and its language entangled up in all this? These conversations led to the laying of an alternative path, reinvigorating accounting education, by adopting a more humanistic approach to accounting.

The course ‘Global Issues in Accounting’ was thus designed and created as a type of experiment exploring the intersections of accounting, art, society and futures, integrating within a cohesive ecological narrative.  This undergraduate course taught in the last year of studies at Monash University in Melbourne (Australia) envisions a space for students to explore their lived experience, contextualise this and create their own unique understanding of accounting. Educators and students work collaboratively and creatively to interrogate accounting frameworks, accountability and conscious leadership. Students do this across three different contexts, the individual, the profession, and society. This has enabled them to see more than accounting’s technical aspects, and to explore how accounting fits into the world around them.

We based our course design on the principles of Constructivist Developmental Pedagogy developed by Marcia Baxter-Magolda at the University of Ohio. This approach is based on three decades of empirical work investigating epistemological understanding of her students. Constructivist Developmental Pedagogy promotes an active involvement in the process of sensemaking and knowledge creation. Baxter-Magolda believes that the three elements necessary for effective learning are:
  1. A validation of students as knowers, acknowledging students have prior understandings and experience;
  2. Learning needs to be situated within the lived experience of students;
  3. Learning is seen as a mutual construction of meaning between students and educators.
So in actively thinking and designing our learning experiences for students the teaching team constantly hold these principles in mind and actively search for engaging ways in which to explore material in this way jointly with our students.

In this context, we draw on humanities and the natural sciences to provoke and induce student imagination and to continuously challenge the role of accounting in society.

We draw on permaculture[1] design principles to investigate a systems approach to accounting. Students have the opportunity to explore a permaculture garden, where they are introduced to the permaculture ethics and design principles. Students explore a natural ecosystem through a permaculture lens, and subsequently contrast this against the human design system of accounting and its business context. In doing so, they start to see how such design principles could inform the organising of business and new forms of governance.

Figure 1. Permaculture garden site visit and discussion

To further prepare students for a complex and changing professional environment, we use context-specific case-study design, where students explore the role of accounting within the Australian refugee crisis as a part of their in-semester assessment. Students analyse and evaluate the financial statements of BroadSpectrum (the organisation responsible for Australia’s offshore detention centres). Students then view ‘Chasing Asylum’, a documentary exposing Australia’s offshore detention policies. This is instrumental to reflect on what they have seen and compare this to their financial analysis. They then bring together their learning across both activities, with their exploration of theoretical accounting viewpoints discussed in seminars, to critically question whether - “current business is immoral?” This encourages our students to think widely about the context in which accounting operates, where students see heightened relevance in accounting assessments.

Further provocation towards ethical reasoning and social, environmental impacts, is achieved through the use of a creative design method of ‘futuring’. Developed and actively trialled by Johan Galtung in the context of peace development, this creative design approach draws heavily on constructivist principles to enact positive ways of solving complex problems. Being placed in the year 2039 our students are asked to reflect back on their relationship to accounting in 2019, students then brainstorm key structural and behavioural forces of change that are and will continue to affect society in the future. By choosing two of these forces of change they then create a quadrant which affords them the opportunity to populate four different accounting futures. These in turn are evaluated by students and presented amongst their peers. Students leave the room empowered and more prepared for an undetermined future:
“During the discussion, we formed constructive arguments that brought a different understanding to what Accounting is and will be in the future. I felt that we were encouraged to think out the box and provide our own opinions towards the task. Very rarely are we required to express our thoughts in a more mature manner. This unit has enabled me to think out of the box, a very important element.” 
Figure 2. Students collaborating to create unboxing videos

Finally, we make use of artistic ways of thinking and doing to develop an activity that asks students to discuss the idea of becoming a professional. To stimulate students’ imagination, we employ the use of unboxing videos, finding recent popularity on YouTube. Unboxing videos are advertisements of new products where individuals unbox new products they receive, or they are used by celebrities to sponsor products. Students are usually familiar with such videos and associate them with today’s consumerism. We ask students to create their own type of unboxing video that addresses the question ‘What role should accountants have in today’s society?’ We provide various material, e.g. play-doh, children’s toys, chalk, coloured paper to invite students to think about the accounting profession with objects not usually associated with accounting. In their one-minute video, students express their creativity. Examples of videos developed include future-oriented accountants that make use of new forms of technology, accountants problematising the integration of non-financial matters, and accountants as part of wider eco-systems. We watch the videos together so students can explore their peers’ views of the accountants’ role in society and stimulate follow-up debate and discussion. 

Figure 3. Futuring seminars, depicting student engagement and future mapping 

‘Global Issues in Accounting’ was awarded a 2019 Ideas worth Teaching Award by The Aspen Institute in New York. This award honours educators and universities which are redefining business education by providing learning experiences that equip managers of tomorrow with the context, skills and decision-making capabilities needed to lead in an increasingly complex business environment.

By creating transformative learning experiences that ask students to transform their own world, this course provides the space for students to grow as professionals, active members of society. Students actively position accounting within its broader social context, develop skills associated with holistic and integrated thinking, complex decision-making, creative brainstorming and sensemaking required to engage in a complex and rapidly changing profession and society.

[1] Permaculture, standing for permanent agriculture, was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia during the 1970s. Permaculture is a human design system derived from indigenous community practices from around the world and comprises of 3 ethics and 12 design principles. These can in turn be used by humans to design self-sustaining ways of living.