Visualizing the Past, with Paolo Quattrone

Paolo Quattroni

Paolo Quattroni


I had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Paolo Quattrone, Professor and Chair of Accounting, Governance and Social innovation at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Paolo studies accounting and management techniques for their visual power and ability to engage the user rather than simply for their aid to rational decision  making. He views accounting not as a tool to provide accurate information, but in providing important visual and rhetorical devices that effect organizational actors and decision making. If you want further insight into Paolo’s research watch his TedX talk. We discussed the role of history in business schools and how he incorporates his own historical research into a diverse range of accounting and finance modules, with participants from undergrads to senior executives.


What role could/should Business history play in the classroom of a business school?

“Why should we teach business history in Business schools? My answer may be a bit provocative: we shouldn’t. Let me articulate. I do quite a substantial amount of historical research in accounting and organization theory. This work spans from the Society of Jesus of the Early Modern times to more contemporary histories of State owned enterprises in Italy. So why would I not teach a course on Business History? Because I think that history is far too important to be relegated to a separate course.”

Where and how, then, do you incorporate historical research into your modules?

“I include most of my historic research into all the courses I teach. Currently these are: a core and quite conventional course on Accounting, Planning and Strategy, a course on Financial Management for Major Programme Management for experienced executives, a Course on Management Control for risk and Uncertainty for younger MSc students and a PhD course on qualitative research methods. In each of these courses, I use historical material for several reasons. Firstly, to make students and executives to look at familiar accounting and decision making tools and visualizations from a different point of view. Not only words (e.g. inventory, comes from inventio, the first canon of rhetoric) but also visualizations have a history (e.g. the Balanced Scorecard works as a rhetorical wheel as described by Orazio Toscanella back in the 16th Century). Knowing such a history makes them discover that accounting techniques and visualizations currently play many different functions from those they believe they do.

Secondly, I use historical material to show how before modernity (which in some cases, as far as accounting is concerned, lasted until the twentieth century) dealing with ambiguities, uncertainties and the mystery of the unknown was the norm not the exception and therefore there is a lot we can learn from the good old times where the ancestors of modern executives developed a whole range of techniques to make sense of such ambiguities, uncertainties and unknowns. I use, for instance, the Jesuit stories I have reconstructed in some of my work to show that when one has to manage a complex programme (be this a large construction mega project or a large transformative programme in a government department) we can learn from religious and missionary organizations because they dealt with unknown on a daily basis and in various sectors of their administrative efforts: from organizing missions to unexplored regions to dealing with the mystery of God.”

What works well and what doesn’t?

“Would my executives be interested in debates between Chandlerians and Foucauldian? I doubt, I have to leave that in the background and I can sometimes refer to such academic debates if I sense that someone in the audience would appreciate the reference. What I am sure is instead that they love being challenged in their firm convictions that they are using the latest technologies to the discover that what they do is at best to use a visualization developed for rhetorical purpose as an aid to memory, knowledge classification and invention!

The trick is to show them material to which they can easily refer and understand: cash accounts, rhetorical machines such as wheels, grids, trees or hierarchies, churches and spaces and relate them to ERP systems, Balanced Scorecards, organizational charts, excel sheets, multidivisional P&Ls and risk registers. They love this and I love it too. History is too important to be just a course in business history, there is much more beyond business and that is worth being explored.”

I was fascinated by Paolo’s use of contemporary concepts that students and participants are (hopefully) familiar with, and by contextualising their historical emergence and evolution, he could not only show how historical actors had addressed similar challenges, but reveal a more nuanced rationale for their use that might not have been appreciated by the students. Both valuable lessons. This is certainly an approach I will experiment with in my own classes. This actually encouraged me to look again at the balanced scorecard and compare it to a rhetoric wheel, and found it enlightening to consider how the relationships between inventio metrics and the strategy and vision can be visualised to create and reinforce messages for the organisation. 


Edited by

Michael Aldous
Published 2016-10-19