Essays on Organizational Decline
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The purpose of this thesis is to understand how organizations manage decline, focusing on the role of management accounting. In the first study, I investigate the role of management accounting in organizations that experience decline. Through a field study in five private sector organizations and one public sector organization, I offer a theory-based explanation for why some organizations use management accounting, while others do not. I find that, when decline arises from discontinuous and unpredictable environmental change, the shock drives organizational members to first convince themselves that their accounting systems and reports can be relied upon and to then use this accounting information to manage decline. In contrast, without any significant discontinuity at the onset of decline, organizational members question the “truth and value” of accounting and, as a result, are not driven to mobilize it to manage decline. In the second study, I conduct additional field work in the public sector organization from the first study to more closely examine how management accounting is used to manage decline and pursue a performance turnaround. I find that leaders actively use management accounting practices to construct an understanding of their organization’s decline through sensemaking and persuade employees to become involved in turnaround efforts through sensegiving. Further, I highlight accountability as an important adjunct to these sensemaking and sensegiving activities. Varied accountability relationships and mechanisms were instituted to discipline the meanings that were constructed and to ensure these meanings were incorporated into organizational decision making and action. In the third study, I empirically test a typology of environmental decline by examining organizations’ behaviours and response strategies during decline. Leveraging the same set of interviews as the first study, I find that leaders’ behaviours and, in particular, their strategic responses and emphasis on efficiency or effectiveness align with the typology. Thus, I highlight that specific details of the environmental change leading to organizational decline have implications for its management. Together, these studies explain the management response to decline and, in particular, show that management accounting is a critical resource for some organizations as their members manoeuvre decline.