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Accounting for Growth
Information Systems and the Creation of the Large Corporation

Margaret C. Levenstein


1998

296 pp.
ISBN: 9780804730037
Cloth $62.50

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"Levenstein gives us a richly articulated view of the complex interactions between a firm's strategy and its information system that will be welcomed by economic and business historians and should be required reading for economists of the firm." —Joanne Yates, Journal of Economic History

Accounting for Growth is a study of information systems in American business during the quarter-century before World War I, a period that saw the birth of the large modern corporation as the dominant form of American enterprise. The book takes as its starting point the way in which the Dow Chemical Company constructed and reconstructed its internal information systems during years of rapid growth and technological change in the chemical industry. The book also discusses how changes in information systems affected Dow's organization and management, as well as the extent of its technological innovation.

During this period, Dow transformed itself from a small, single-product firm, which sold all its output through a national cartel, into a technologically dynamic, vertically integrated firm selling pharmaceutical, agricultural, and industrial chemicals throughout the world. These organizational and strategic changes required changes in the firm's information systems, which measured and recorded what occurred within the firm, particularly in the areas of monitoring and planning. Most of these changes were incremental and were initiated by Dow's managers, who relied heavily on the expertise of large stockholders associated with other firms.

The book examines the impact of the accounting profession and its new standards in cost accounting on the development of information systems at Dow. It compares Dow's accounting practices to those of other manufacturing firms as well as to the emerging ideas of accountants and engineers about how information systems should be designed. Despite urging from professional accountants, Dow declined to include allocated overhead in its calculation of product costs, relying instead on measures of average variable cost except when it was making prospective investment decisions. Such innovations changed both the information available to managers and the incentives that followed.

These information changes encouraged Dow's master strategy of product diversification (moving into new markets and out of some large but less profitable ones) and vertical integration, rather than cooperation with cartels, which controlled distribution as well as output decisions.

Margaret C. Levenstein is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan.



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