Wisps of Change in Global Business?

Cover of the Six Capitals book

Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White, (Allen & Unwin, 2014).

I was delighted earlier this week when my first book review of the year was published on the Newtown Review of Books. This website does a great service to Australia’s book industry and it is a pleasure to be edited by the founders of the website, Jean Bedford and Linda Funnell

I reviewed Jane Gleeson-White’s latest book, Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism had to have – or can accountants save the planet?  This is the follow up book to Double Entry which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

I enjoy reading Gleeson-White’s books about accounting. They are much more interesting than the deadly dull books I had to read when I was doing my accounting degree. Thank goodness for economics I say! Without economics to provide interesting content I would have struggled to finish my degree.

I started my working career working as an accountant in the mid-1980s working in audit at one of what was then known as the big eight international accounting firms. After a couple of years I moved to small business work at a middle tier firm in Melbourne.

This was an eventful period in the economy. I started work during the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era and never forget the ‘recession we had to have’ which was so devastating in Melbourne. Who can forget that morning when we woke to the announcement that the State Bank of Victoria had become insolvent and been taken over by the Commonwealth Bank over night? It was devastating news for Victorians.

(On a side note, it was lovely to find the State Bank of Victoria Social Networking Site while writing this post. It shows the staff of the bank still have regular reunions and other social activities. They are also scanning all the Bank’s staff magazines from 1958 onwards and have uploaded various ephemera. Maybe an historian reading this might find them a good resource?)

Working in a chartered accounting firm during that era was certainly not dull. I worked with some good people and we had an enjoyable social life, particularly at the second firm. I was the first woman on the factory floor at a car parts manufacturer and unwittingly managed to avert a threatened union black ban on a stock take. I was a novelty and my happy accident of saying ‘scusi’ to one of the many Italian workers went down well, as did treating them with respect.

We stumbled across fraud and some were undone by it, perhaps literally. I never forget finding the shredded tie of a very stressed accountant one night in the bin.

Being one of a new wave of women accountants I had few, correction, zero female mentors and very few women at higher levels as role models. My first day on the job commenced with introductions to my male colleagues followed by them questioning me about my choice of career. They told me teaching was a better career for women than accounting. But I think that was sorted out by the time I won a game of pool against the previously unbeaten manager one lunch time a few months later. The guys taught me how to play but I have quite a reservoir of beginners luck in sport exemplified by that game when I potted balls holding the cue in my right hand and then my left hand. Sigh! I have never been able to replicate that.

I was doing some work in the tax division when over lunch one of the managers voiced shock that someone had stated in their job application they were a member of a Christian group of accountants. “How can I employ someone like that” he exclaimed, the implication was that a pre-existing set of morals would be an impediment to tax work. Being a low-level staff member, I said nothing but felt sympathy towards the unnamed applicant whose resume was immediately binned.

Values? Morals? Those words were never spoken. We did have to pass a unit of ethics in our professional year but that was the easiest unit of all. Our day to day job was to comply with the letter of the law, but there are always lots of spaces between those letters. The tax legislation grew and grew in an impotent attempt by legislators to staunch the gaps. There are always going to be holes in legislation. More laws just makes access to the gaps more complicated. For everyone else it makes the work in compliance of those laws more expensive, time-consuming and confusing. In a business environment where there are no values except making more money and exploiting the rules of the game, the law is always going to be a step or three behind.

The cover with a cartoon of Marx, Smith, Keynes and Friedman at a Mad Hatter's tea party.

May 2009 issue of Charter, the magazine of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Accounting has changed a lot in recent years. In a review last year I expressed my amazement at seeing a picture of Karl Marx on the front cover of the monthly magazine of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. The article demonstrated much broader and deeper thought than I ever witnessed when I was in the profession.   Since then I have seen other articles which hints at a change stirring in the profession.

This is why I was excited by Jane Gleeson-White’s new book. Six Capitals is about a small and disparate group of accountants, investors, lawyers and non-government organisations scattered around the world who are exploring the possibility of finding a new way for the world to do business. They are working from within the corporate world to find a new way to conduct economic life on this planet that promotes sustainability and equality. These are fledgling ideas, other routes may be chosen, but I believe that if we look carefully we can see wisps of change in the sentiment of the business world.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 logoSix Capitals is not just a book for accountants and lawyers. It is a book that all people who are interested in supporting the transformation of the way the world does business should read. It is a book to ponder and discuss. Six Capitals requires work of the reader to understand the concepts but new ways of thought and being always require us to stretch ourselves. No prior knowledge of economics, accounting or law is required.

Now it is your turn. Read my review of Six Capitals at the Newtown Review of Books. What are your thoughts?

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