Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Who are accountants?

[Excerpted from U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (2004-2005), Bulletin 2450: Accountants and Auditors]

Accountants and auditors help to ensure that the Nation’s firms are run efficiently, its public records kept accurately, and its taxes paid properly and on time. They perform these vital functions by offering an increasingly wide array of business and accounting services to their clients. These services include public, management, and government accounting, as well as internal auditing. Beyond the fundamental tasks of the occupation—preparing, analyzing, and verifying financial documents in order to provide information to clients—many accountants now are required to possess a wide range of knowledge and skills. Accountants and auditors are broadening the services they offer to include budget analysis, financial and investment planning, information technology consulting, and limited legal services.

Public accountants perform a broad range of accounting, auditing, tax, and consulting activities for their clients, who may be corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, or individuals.

Management accountants—also called cost, managerial, industrial, corporate, or private accountants—record and analyze the financial information of the companies for which they work.

Government accountants and auditors work in the public sector, maintaining and examining the records of government agencies and auditing private businesses and individuals whose activities are subject to government regulations or taxation.

Internal auditors verify the accuracy of their organization’s internal records and check for mismanagement, waste, or fraud. Internal auditing is an increasingly important area of accounting and auditing.

Computers are rapidly changing the nature of the work for most accountants and auditors. With the aid of special software packages, accountants summarize transactions in standard formats for financial records and organize data in special formats for financial analysis.

Most accountants and auditors work in a typical office setting.

Most accountants and auditors generally work a standard 40-hour week, but many work longer hours, particularly if they are self-employed and have numerous clients. Tax specialists often work long hours during the tax season.

Accountants and auditors held about 1.1 million jobs in 2002. They worked throughout private industry and government, but 1 out of 5 wage and salary accountants worked for accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services firms. Approximately 1 out of 10 accountants or auditors were self-employed.

Professional recognition through certification or licensure provides a distinct advantage in the job market. CPAs are licensed by a State Board of Accountancy.

All States use the four-part Uniform CPA Examination prepared by the AICPA. The 2-day CPA examination is rigorous, and only about one-quarter of those who take it each year passes every part they attempt.

[n.b., There are a number of other professional designations used by CPAs: Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV), Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP), Personal Financial Specialist (PFS). Designations other than CPA include: Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certification in Control Self-Assessment (CCSA), Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA), Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Accredited Business Accountant (ABA), Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA), Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP), and Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM).]

Persons planning a career in accounting should have an aptitude for mathematics and be able to analyze, compare, and interpret facts and figures quickly. They must be able to clearly communicate both written and verbally the results of their work to clients and managers. Accountants and auditors must be good at working with people, as well as with business systems and computers. At a minimum, accountants should be familiar with basic accounting software packages. Because financial decisions are made based on their statements and services, accountants and auditors should have high standards of integrity.

In general, public accountants, management accountants, and internal auditors have much occupational mobility.

As the economy grows, the number of business establishments will increase, requiring more accountants and auditors to set up books, prepare taxes, and provide management advice. As these businesses grow, the volume and complexity of information developed by accountants and auditors regarding costs, expenditures, and taxes will increase as well. Increased need for accountants and auditors will arise from changes in legislation related to taxes, financial reporting standards, business investments, mergers, and other financial matters

Accountants and auditors design internal control systems and analyze financial data. Others for whom training in accounting is valuable include budget analysts; cost estimators; loan officers; financial analysts and personal financial advisors; tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents; bill and account collectors; and bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks. Recently, accountants have assumed the role of management analysts and are involved in the design, implementation, and maintenance of accounting software systems. Others who perform similar work include computer programmers, computer software engineers, and computer support specialists and systems administrators.

Information Behaviour of Accountants

1. There is little information specifically about accountants in the literature. Their activities are, however, highly varied. It should be noted, however, that all of these activities involve information and ephemeral concepts rather than the solid material of other professions e.g., building materials (engineers), injured bodies (doctors), or students (teachers).

2. Inherent in the description provided by the Occupational Outlook Handbook are the various information seeking attributes of Leckie et. al’s (2002) model: work roles (e.g., as “service provider”, “administration and management”, “researcher”, “educator”, and “student”), tasks, characteristics of information needs (i.e., demographics, geographic location, frequency, predictability, etc.), sources of information, awareness of information, and outcomes.

3. The accounting profession has been referred to as the “priesthood” of industry (Matthews, Anderson, & Edwards, 1998). Accountants typically achieve management-type positions and this common “role” has particular implications for information behaviour. Auster and Choo (1994), for example, note that CEOs in the Canadian context typically rely on “environmental scanning” to acquire information for decision-making. They generally concentrate their activities on the competition and customer sectors, and then the technological and regulatory scanning. They typically use personal sources, in order: business associates, newspapers, journals, external reports, and internal staff. These observations are consistent with other accounts of organizational information use such as Wilson and Streatfield’s (1977) study indicating that 67% of communication events last less than 5 minutes and 63% of events occur orally. The use of informal information may enable managers to limit their reliance on time-intensive formal and codified information sources (Mackenzie, 2003). Missing from this analysis is accountant’s use of codified guidelines.

4. Much of accounting practice is codified under the Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP) and various regional regulations. These guidelines formally structure many of the information practices of accountants and their importance cannot be overstated. Abbott (1988), for example, indicates the importance of prescriptive, interpretive, and treatment classifications for professions and Bowker and Star (1999) explicate how particular codified frameworks operate. Of key interest is the nature of these guidelines since they construct both the information and professional world of accountants. Without the guidelines, accounting collapses. There is no lay discipline that predates accounting since accounting is both a product of, and crucial to, our capital intensive society (Bryer, 2000a, 2000b). Sociologists have noted, however, that studying these types of guidelines as boundary objects can be fruitful (Star, 1998). In this regard, accountants operate in a world of classifications that construct their occupational worlds… much like LIS professionals. These classifications structure both the space and time of the professional world of accountants (Takatera & Sawabe, 2000)


Abbott, A. D. (1988). The system of professions : an essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Auster, E., & Choo, C. W. (1994). How Senior Managers Acquire and Use Information in Environmental Scanning. Information Processing & Management, 30(5), 607-618.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bryer, R. A. (2000a). The history of accounting and the transition to capitalism in England. Part one: theory. Accounting Organizations and Society, 25(2), 131-162.
Bryer, R. A. (2000b). The history of accounting and the transition to capitalism in England. Part two: evidence. Accounting Organizations and Society, 25(4-5), 327-381.
Mackenzie, M. L. (2003). An exploratory study investigating the information behaviour of line managers within a business environment. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 4, 63-77.
Matthews, D., Anderson, M., & Edwards, J. R. (1998). The priesthood of industry : the rise of the professional accountant in British management. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Star, S. L. (1998). Grounded Classifications: Grounded Theory and Faceted Classifications. Library Trends, 47, 218-252.
Takatera, S., & Sawabe, N. (2000). Time and space in income accounting. Accounting Organizations and Society, 25(8), 787-798.
Wilson, T. D., & Streatfield, D. R. (1977). Information needs in local authority social services departments: an interim report on project INISS. Journal of Documentation, 33(4), 277-293.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Disinterested Destination

At some point during my undergraduate days, a guest speaker came to one of our classes. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what class it was. Regardless, the speaker that I remember was a planner. He provided some sage advice: “Planners are generalists. They keep expanding their field and their knowledge about any particular thing gets thinner and thinner. They end up knowing nothing about everything. Engineers, however, have to specialize until they end up knowing everything about nothing. We both end up knowing the same thing: nothing.”

For some reason, my recent readings (Bourdieu, 1990, 1998; Dretske, 1999; Giddens, 1984) have put brought this anecdote back to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m very aware of a process where I’m gradually learning everything there is to know about a very narrow topic. In my mind, I imagine that there will two brief moments over the next few years where I’ll know more about a particular topic than anyone else in the world. Immediately after my comps I’ll have developed a unique take on the world of information science that nobody else could possible have. As soon as I finish writing, however, I’m sure that it will all just begin to ebb away. Not long after, my dissertation will give me the opportunity to (briefly) be the world’s leading expert on a very esoteric topic.

I could read Giddens or Bourdieu into these thoughts. My doctoral training, for example, provides the structure that I require to co-ordinate the time and space required to create my ideas. Furthermore, that same structure will afford me the ability to justify (to myself and others hopefully) the importance of my takes on these topics. I feel like I’m moving toward something. As noted by Bourdieu, I’m playing the game and will hopefully be where I need to be when the ball lands.

While the disciplinary structure itself may enable me to justify my thoughts and ideas I’m very aware that they will only remain stable for a very brief moment in the maelstroms of academic rhetoric and my own cognitive processes. And that brief moment will require a whole pile of work to create the local structure necessary for my ideas to stand up. It’s a foregone conclusion, however, that the wax and feathers of research methodologies and academic discourse that enables the ideas to fly also begin to decay as they approach the sun. Like Icarus, my efforts are—in a way—already doomed.

So what am I going to do in that very brief moment when they stand? I’m not sure that I have so thoroughly swallowed the cultural norms of the academy that I’m blind to the epistemological rot it produces. I feel the need to use these anticipated moments of insight to produce something other than just a soon-to-be-forgotten manuscript.

Bourdieu (1998) provides perhaps the best description for how I’m feeling:

“Although I do not see the hidden sides of a cube, they are quasi present, they are ‘presented’ in a relationship of belief which is that which we accord to something we perceive. They are not aimed for in a project, as equally possible or impossible; they are there, with the doxic modality of that which is directly perceived.

In fact, these pre-perceptive anticipations, a sort of practical induction based on previous experience, are not given to a pure subject, a universal transcendental consciousness. They are the fact of the habitus as a feel for the game.” (Pg. 80)

I’m moving toward something and I’m not sure what it is. Sure, I’m using a whole lot of information but all those models on information seeking behaviour (see Wilson, 1999) suddenly seem pretty shallow.


Bourdieu, P. (1990). From rules to strategies. In In other words : essays towards a reflexive sociology (pp. 59-75). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Is a disinterested act possible? In Practical reason : on the theory of action (pp. 75-91). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dretske, F. I. (1999). Machines, Plants, and Animals : The Origins of Agency. Erkenntnis, 51, 19-31.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press.

Wilson, T. D. (1999). Models in information behaviour research. Journal of Documentation, 55(3), 249-270.