what can we learn from old Jesuit administrative and accounting practices?

Think of an organization that, in just a few decades, grew from seven to about 13,000 members, across four continents with 495 branches to serve and manage an indefinitely growing number of clients. These are remarkable achievements by any standard and thus you may associate this enterprise with global and dynamic firms such as Microsoft, Google, or Facebook.

Now imagine mastering this expansion without phone, email, electricity, or the plethora of instruments that nowadays are essential not only to manage relationships between headquarters and subsidiaries but also in our personal lives. Now keep this organization going almost uninterrupted for more than 450 years. Remarkable doesn’t even begin to describe it. It would have something of a magical, if not divine quality.

The organization I’ve asked you to imagine is the Jesuit Order, a Catholic Order founded in Italy in 1540 and still ‘in operation’.  Understanding how they accomplish this tremendous expansion and endurance has been for me one of the most rewarding research experience.

The Jesuits can teach us a lot and this is because they devised a series of practices to deal with what today we would term as ‘the unknown’: they researched the mystery of God (through their Spiritual Exercises), the mystery of Knowledge (through their pedagogical practices), the mystery of value (through accounting routines) and the mystery of the unexplored and the different (through their missions).

They also offered some interesting insights on how to rethink accounting, governance and management from a non positivist perspective. An easy example will illustrate what I mean here.

Take how they operated their cash account. If one looks at a cash account one would thing that one is looking at a simple financial representation: how much cash goes in and out of the cask box. But the Jesuits were too smart to believe that the complexity of their Order and its surrounding world could have been reduced to a number, to a purely financial issue.   Their colleges’ cash boxes therefore was operated with two keys – one held by the procurator (the equivalent of today’s CFO) the other held by the rector (in today’s terms, the CEO).

Only by talking to each other and mediating competing interests could they open the cash box and appropriate funds as agreed. For them, looking at financial numbers was a pragmatic means to interrogate non-financial issues, to seek the common good, which by definition, could not be defined once and for all but needed to be continuously negotiated. The ‘common good’ was the mystery to be interrogated, the locus where financial value met broader values. They used accounting figures (accounting visualizations) not as means of representation but as techniques of speculation to reflect on what is too complex to be dealt with a simple number. A great lessons for those who believe that utility is represented by a market price.

I have explored some of the Jesuit ways of dealing with the mystery in a few of my works, where I show how the Jesuits mixed accounting, rhetoric and the art of memory to make a wise use of accounting visualizations. They surely offered insights on how reasonable, rather than rational, choices can pragmatically be made.

If you are interested in knowing more please see my publication page for further details. See also this recent piece in AEON, which no academic jargon!