Will Integrated Reporting improve sustainability? Part III – Integrated Thinking

dreamstime_s_33567037Dr Dale Tweedie and Prof. Nonna Martinov-Bennie.

This is the third of five blogs on whether and how Integrated Reporting might contribute to sustainability.

In this blog, we consider the International Integrated Reporting’s Council’s (IIRC) objective of promoting ‘integrated thinking’.

In a sense, integrated thinking is more fundamental to Integrated Reporting than the final report itself, because the IIRC has defined Integrated Reporting as ‘a process founded on integrated thinking’.

In other word, the primary function of the Integrated Report is to communicate the changes in outlook and organisational practice that Integrated Reporting processes should have generated.

What is integrated thinking?

The IIRC defines integrated thinking as ‘the active consideration by an organisation of the relationships between its various operating units’.

As we explore in a recent article, integrated thinking has two main parts:

  1. Understanding and dialogue that stretches across an organisation’s operating units. For example, reporting and assurance on carbon emissions in mining operations might facilitate integrated thinking by requiring the accounting team to collaborate with scientific experts to measure and document carbon output.
  2. A more holistic understanding of how the organisation interacts with internal and external stakeholders. In particular, the IIRC claims that integrated thinking involves a ‘fuller consideration of stakeholders’ legitimate needs and interests’.

This suggests that integrated thinking should change both how managers see their organisation and how their organisation functions. Indeed, these two types of changes are inextricably linked: Integrated reporting should help managers better understand their organisations precisely because it stimulates more open dialogue across its constituent parts (or ‘silos’) and external stakeholders.

What are the implications for sustainability?

Early research has questioned whether integrated reporting is so far creating the type of changes the IIRC envisages. For instance, Stubbs and Higgin’s (2014) study of early adopters found incremental changes to sustainability reporting practices, rather than the more extensive and transformative organisational changes that integrated thinking seems to imply. A recent IIRC report also finds incremental changes in many organisations, but emphasizes the potential for integrated thinking to emerge over time. One of the IIRC’s participants suggests that – in practical terms – integrated thinking typically develops through producing multiple integrated reports.  

Nonetheless, it is possible to identify both positive and negative aspects of the IIRC’s approach to integrated thinking for sustainability.

POSTIVE: The IIRC’s emphasis on Integrated thinking is entirely consistent with its focus on improving how organisations communicate. Since a key part of integrated thinking is understanding other stakeholders’ views and interests, integrated thinking might improve organisations’ awareness – and the awareness of managers in particular – of sustainability issues.

NEGATIVE: Integrated thinking is a relatively weak accountability mechanism, because whether integrated thinking is occurring, and how well, cannot be directly disclosed, measured or audited (despite the IIRC’s growing focus on assurance). For example, integrated thinking may prompt management to better understand the ‘legitimate needs and interests’ of their organisations’ workers. However, it is difficult to measure or enforce this understanding, especially compared to the Global Reporting Initiatives requirement for organisations to report against International Labour Organisation benchmarks.

Moreover, and as previously discussed, the IIRC is yet to clarify what concrete processes organisations should use to engage their stakeholders. Hence, more could be done to explain what management can do to gain the broader understanding of stakeholders’ views and interests that integrated thinking entails.

In our next blog, we will consider in more detail to what extent Integrated Reporting might improve sustainability by capturing stakeholders’ ‘legitimate interests and needs’ better than alternative reporting frameworks.

As always, any comments or thoughts most welcome. If you wish to be e-mailed future blogs, please subscribe to this blog.

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