Join hands in modesty

22 February 1998

Accountancy is a worthy profession whose practitioners are too often belittled as pebblecounters or beancounters (mea culpa), even by self-deprecating accountants. Michael Power, a professor of accounting, has written a critical book, The Audit Society (published by Oxford University Press) which is deeply academic and therefore high above my head. But I gather from a mercifully lucid review that the book is about 'audits' of the kinds that have mushroomed in recent times.

These 'audits' are assessments of corporate, national and societal performance in a growing variety of sectors. They are named after and modelled on the procedures, called audits, that were originally devised by beancounters for examining and validating financial accounts. Nowadays you get 'audits' of anything and everything, including health, safety, risks, environmental management, energy efficiency and what are known by some as Y2K and by others as millennium time bomb effects (which include the failures that could occur when computers, for example in nuclear plants, proved unable to distinguish between the years 20XY, 19XY and 18XY).

Power people have succumbed in droves to the lure of audits. Picking a case at random I see the name of John L. Barrett, one-time audit controller of the UK's biggest electricity generating corporation, on the list of speakers at an audit conference. His title is Operational Audits: Discovering How Internal Audit Can Demonstrate its Tangible Contribution to the Business and Enhance its Own Standing, which looks as impressive as it is extensive.

Professor Power, who knows auditing from the inside (he has been a big-time financial auditor himself), is healthily wary of obsessive measurement and verification. He fears that 'audit society' will count nothing but beans so assiduously that in the end it will produce nothing but beans.

Some beancounters have an answer to this threat. They insist that auditing is in principle humanity's best route to good judgement. Therefore, they argue, auditors will have to audit themselves. Power reportedly acknowledges that audit self-evaluation can succeed but also urges 'caution if not pessimism'. I think he is right. Self-deprecating engineers may be as rare as self-deprecating accountants, but they do exist: and the two modest minorities must surely agree that the account-book model of humanity is as inadequate as the mechanical one.

Let cogenerators be omnivorous

"Our backs were against the wall!" That cry by Roger Moore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, appears as the title of an article in Power Perspectives, a periodical published by the Swedo-Swiss multinational, Asea Brown Boveri.

The writer tells the story of MIT's homegrown and homesited generating plant, which the university began scheming in 1984. Preliminary study in those days indicated that a gas-turbined cogenerating installation would be the best answer to perceived needs. Unfortunately the NOx emission standards in MIT's urban surroundings were so severe that no turbine then on the market could meet them without selective catalytic reduction by ammonia in the flue. MIT's authorities baulked at ammonia storage on campus. Other options were examined but failed to appeal and, as 1990 waned, so did hope. The article quotes Moore's reminiscent words. They recall that, without a low-NOx turbine, the enterprise seemed doomed: the MIT engineers then felt that cold pressure of masonry behind them.

ABB saved the project. Their new dry combustion technology had been under development for launch in 1991 and, luckily, MIT's top academic brass knew about it. Introductions were effected, demonstrations mounted, cooperation begun: and the university's 'state-of-the-art cogeneration plant in Cambridge, Mass' was the happy result. As Power Perspectives contentedly puts it, performance 'has been up to expectations and then some'.

It is a heart-warming story of team work between customer and supplier. But why, I wonder, does the writer define cogeneration as 'the use of one fuel to generate two forms of energy'? MIT savants would, I surmise, have preferred 'plant' in place of 'fuel', and might have been a tad embarrassed by the pseudo-academic generality of 'two forms of energy'.

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