A privatization success story: accounting and narrative expression over time

Russell Craig, J. Amernic

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Purpose – This paper is the third in a trilogy of papers to explore the use of accounting as a fundamental element in senior management's narrative regarding the privatization of a major transportation enterprise, Canadian National Railway (CN). The paper aims to examine how two accounting performance benchmarks (the operating ratio, and free cash flow) were deployed to help sustain a rhetoric of post-privatization success. The aptness (and the danger) of accounting language in strategic narrative is highlighted. Design/methodology/approach – The paper describes the importance of senior management discourse in the aftermath of a privatization. A narrative perspective is adopted, in which an imagined future post-privatization era initially articulated in accounting language is then told and re-told as the post-privatization years unfold. Accounting performance measures highlighted in the story of success of the privatization in the Annual Letters to Shareholders by the CEOs of CN in the ten years following privatization in 1995, and celebrated in the Annual Report, are examined critically. Findings – The results emphasize the important features and role of accounting language and accounting-based performance benchmark measures in the narrative construction of the success of a privatization by corporate leaders. Research limitations/implications – Case studies possess the strength of specific instance detail and interpretation, and the ostensible weakness of interpretation of a sample of one. But such research can provide for a reframing of conceptual perspectives and stimulate additional efforts to interrogate the role of accounting language in events of major social change. Practical implications – The paper strongly endorses the adoption of a critical analytical perspective by those affected by a major social change (such as a privatization) in which the role of accounting language is subtle, but nonetheless persuasive and enduring. Originality/value – The paper examines a case study in which the narrative framing of success is made rhetorically potent by deploying accounting performance measures. The paper reinforces the view that accounting is not an innocent bystander in the political and narrative manoeuvrings associated with a privatization. Accounting does not axiomatically provide an objective measure of some underlying financial truth, but is part of an arsenal of rhetoric to achieve political ends.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1085-1115
    Number of pages31
    JournalAccounting Auditing and Accountability Journal
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


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