Accounting for everything

Do we need more examples of opportunities lost? We do indeed grow in fits and starts. On that score, the story is not complete. The 1960s represented a seminal moment in the history of computing. At that time, a quarter of a century of organizational computing had passed. Many had developed interesting perspectives on what could be achieved. Thought leaders were not universally pleased. Peter Drucker, for example, mentioned in the late 1990s that he and others had thought when computers became available after World War II that they would be useful for a higher order of thought than had turned out to be the case. This is a similar concern to that cited earlier by W. Edwards Deming.

Two people in that era, one an accountant and the other a computer scientist, provided useful insights. The first of these, George Sorter, started a conversation principally among accountants called “event accounting”. The other, Edgar Codd, was the founder of the database movement best known for the “relational database” approach. Each of these movements went wrong, very wrong. In each case, outcomes were quite the opposite from what the thought leaders had in mind in the first place.

Event accounting

Among other things, Sorter wrote that data should be useful for things very different from what systems designers would have even known about. He said that such data should be useful for users for their own purposes. In his day he saw technical barriers to this. Though he did not offer technical solutions or even models, but he pointed to a goal and provided sufficient information to get the process started. In the late 1970s, the event accounting phrase was taken up in series of publications in the accounting field, but with different underlying principles. The net result was anything but empowerment of users and the achievement of perfection. It supported more of a “command and control” culture that is now very evident in organizations.

Big E, little e model

Edgar Codd saw the same phenomenon as George Sorter, but from a different perspective. He conceived of the relational database model in a 1970 publication. His point then was that people should not have to even know where their data was stored in order to use it. That was the stimulus behind the relational model. It works with a few tables. It breaks down with thousands of tables. It becomes an abhorrent beast with tens of thousands of tables, currently the norm. The result is a silo culture that puts mutually-assured destruction to shame.

Dr. Tingey combined the two works, the “events accounting” set of ideas and the “relational database” model, into a uniform approach to accounting and data structures. It is called the “Big E, little e model”. After doing an extensive review of the event accounting literature in 2001, Dr. Tingey worked with two professors, an accountant and a computer scientist, to publish this information, to correct the course of the literature. After a time, the accounting professor recanted. He said, “there is no way we are going to go up against those people. They are the Gods of accounting”. Wow, now that is powerful stuff.

The Big E, little e model will not be described here, but it combines with the taxonomy model and the SPC approach to processes to support complexity through simplicity. It makes perfection once again possible on top of technology, making use of the power of systems and networks without losing freedom of design and thought.