Will Integrated Reporting improve sustainability? Part III – Integrated Thinking

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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.

Will Integrated Reporting improve sustainability?

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– Dr Dale Tweedie and Prof. Nonna Martinov-Bennie.

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If the Integrated Reporting Framework is successful in engaging business and investors, how – if at all – will this success affect sustainability?

This is the first of a series of short blogs that address this question, based on a new article published in the Social and Environmental Accountability Journal in February, 2015.

What is sustainability?

The word ‘sustainability’ has many different meaningsWe use the term to refer to a replicable and just use of social and natural resources. This is the ideal of sustainability made famous by the World Commission on Environment and Development’s definition of sustainability as ‘meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

One difficulty with assessing how the Integrated Reporting framework will affect sustainability is that the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) itself uses the word ‘sustainable’ to mean two quite different things:

  • Sustained value creation; which refers to a company’s ability to continually create value over time; and
  • Natural and social sustainability; which refers to companies that consider how their actions are connected to, or impact, society and the environment.

These two ideas are linked, but they are not synonymous. For example, an energy company might profitably sustain itself extracting and selling fossil fuels for many years, without necessarily considering its impacts on global warming or accounting for the costs that future generations will bear.

How Integrated Reporting will not affect sustainability

Integrated Reports require companies to consider natural and social capital, but an Integrated Report is not a sustainability report.

Sustainability reports typically require businesses to explain more fully how their activities impact societies (e.g. work, health and safety reporting) and natural environments (e.g. recycling and energy use).

In a sense, Integrated Reporting does the reverse: An Integrated Report aims to better explain how society impacts business.

One partial but useful way of thinking about Integrated Reporting is as expanding companies’ balance sheets to better represent how companies depend on non-financial resources, including resources or ‘capitals’ the company does not or cannot own. For example, in an Integrated Report, social capital might reflect how companies’ supply chains and sales depend on a hidden web of trust and goodwill, as well as on its monetary wealth and physical assets.

But an Integrated Reporting ‘balance sheet’ is still organised from the companies’ point of view, rather than from external stakeholders’ view of how the company impacts them. More precisely, an Integrated Report is organised from the point of view of how social, natural and other capitals enable companies to create financial value, especially over the longer term.

So if Integrated Reporting is to improve sustainability, it can’t be in the same way as sustainability reports.

How Integrated Reporting might affect sustainability.

Integrated Reporting might affect sustainability if bringing new types of capital into mainstream business reporting and business models helps to improve how companies interact with their communities and natural environment; such as by being more responsive to harmful effects that are not priced into conventional markets.

Our recent article considers four possible ways that IR could impact natural and social sustainability in this way:

  • By changing how organisations communicate
  • By encouraging integrated thinking
  • By better representing stakeholders’ ‘legitimate interests and needs’
  • By better capturing the long-term impacts of how organisations use resources.

In our upcoming blogs, we will review each of these possibilities in more detail.

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Any comments or thoughts are most welcome.

Learning the Lessons: Alan Cameron on Audit Committees at the joint IGAP & CPA Australia Annual Forum.

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Camerron photoAlan Cameron AO used his address to the IGAP and CPA Australia Annual Forum in 2014 on ‘The evolving role of audit committees’ to draw lessons from the HIH and Centro cases for contemporary audit committees.

Cameron is current Chair of the ASX Corporate Governance Council and several large public companies, and also a former Deputy Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

He addressed the IGAP and CPA Australia Annual Forum in his personal capacity, drawing on his extensive experience to provide insights into what the Centro and HIH judgements reveal about good audit committee practice.

Cameron’s keynote address emphasised directors’ role in addressing governance issues early, rather than becoming ‘gatekeepers’ after the fact:

‘To me gatekeepers are auditors and regulators and other people who look at the results afterwards. I think directors are rather earlier in the line than gatekeepers’.

Looking back over the Centro and HIH cases, Cameron highlighted three key lessons for how boards and audit committees can best execute their functions.

  1. Keeping the board and audit committee separate

The HIH judgement underscored how audit committees need to meet separately from the board if the accounts are to be examined rigorously. In Cameron’s words:

‘If the whole board is involved in the work of the audit committee, the audit committee is not doing its job. Its job is to have a first detailed look and if the whole board is there all the time as a matter of routine that isn’t going to happen’.

‘To me a troubling aspect of the processes of the HIH audit committee was its practice of meeting before and effectively in the presence of the board. As a result of that practice it operated as little more than an extension of the board… I see that now all over the place’.

  1. Making time to review financial reports properly

Another impediment to rigorously examining the accounts is not allowing the audit committee and the board time to consider the financials properly. Among other issues, the HIH judgement criticised ‘the practice of the six monthly financial reports being considered by the audit committee, approved by the board and announced all on the same day’.

Not only do directors need time between meetings to adequately review the financial reports, they also need time to access the right people:

‘The audit committee should meet auditors in the absence of management before or in the course of each meeting or at least from time to time. The material should be distributed well in advance of a committee meeting’

  1. A clear audit committee charter

Cameron’s analysis of the HIH judgement also highlighted the absence of a clear role for the audit committee in that company. By contrast, a clear and detailed charter can help define and clarify the audit committee’s role:

‘The [HIH] charter is short and the terms of reference are couched in general language. They do not clearly define and establish the role and responsibilities of the committee and its relationship to the board. There is no evidence that the terms were reviewed annually to see that the committee in its role remained relevant to the needs of HIH. So I think the clear message from that is short might be dangerous. You do need to review it every year’.

Learning the Lessons

Although Cameron’s address focused on audit-committee practice, he also reminded participants of the whole board’s responsibilities under law:

‘Whilst an audit committee has an important role of monitoring oversight that is not to the exclusion of the role of a director to consider the financial accounts for him or herself’.

Cameron concluded by highlighting several practices that directors might adopt, including:

  • Insisting on reviewing paper copies of the reports;
  • Checking organisations’ systems for dealing with whistle-blowers; and
  • Paying attention to internal audit.

Ultimately though, Cameron stressed that there is no substitute for directors using their limited time to investigate the right issues:

‘We can set up all these structures, but if people don’t ask the right questions, and be appropriately sceptical, then you will still have these problems’

Integrated Reporting: Lessons from the Global Reporting Initiative?

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????On April 16, 2013 the International Integrated Reported Council (IIRC) will release a draft of ‘Version 1’ of its Integrated Reporting framework for public comment. This release marks a new stage in efforts to measure organisations’ performance on non-financial grounds, such as their use or ‘stewardship’ of social and environmental resources. While there have been many previous methods of social and environmental reporting, the distinctive idea of Integrated Reporting is to use simultaneous presentation of financial and non-financial information to show how organisations’ management of different types of resources – financial, human, and environmental – are interconnected, so that success or failure in one area (e.g. use of natural resources) has consequences for the whole. Integrated reporting has attracted significant support in a comparatively short period of time, including from major international organisations like Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Volvo in the IIRC’s pilot program and business network, and recognition from the peak international professional body in accounting: the International Federation of Accountants.

Will IR be successful over the long term? A useful starting point is the experience of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which co-founded the IIRC in 2010. From small beginnings in 1997, the GRI has grown to become arguably the most well-known and widely used means of reporting social and environmental information. However, there has been considerable debate over the impact that the GRI is having on corporate reporting. On one hand, many studies have highlighted the extensive use of sustainability reporting by the world’s largest firms, with the GRI the most popular reporting mechanism. On the other hand, critics like David Levy, Halina Brown and Martin de Jong have argued that the adoption of GRI by businesses overall has been comparatively low. More importantly, they claim, the social and environmental measures developed by the GRI are not being widely used by investors and social institutions for their intended purposes.

It remains to be seen whether the fourth iteration of GRI due out in May – ‘G4’ – will address some or all of its critics’ concerns. However, regardless of your view on the GRI, the GRI debate raises important questions about how IR will deliver enough value to stakeholders to encourage use of integrated reports over the long term. One feature of the IIRC’s approach is to stress that IR can add value to companies by promoting dialogue across the organisation. The feedback on the IIRC’s pilot program suggests that at least those large international companies that are trialling IR view this approach positively. Yet while the abstract value of sustainability reporting (e.g. to organisational reputation) has been long discussed, it has proved more difficult to quantify these benefits, especially for the smaller to medium sized organisations which face relatively higher costs.

As the GRI debate also highlights, the usefulness of IR to investors will depend not only on the internal benefits of IR for any one organisation, but also on investors’ ability to compare organisations’ performance on social and environmental indicators. It remains to be seen whether the voluntary framework proposed by the IIRC is capable of meeting this objective, especially where organisations adopting IR have discretion over the indicators they choose to report.

Finally, while the IIRC has been making a strong case for the business benefits of IR, the IIRC’s focus on investors has at least temporarily sidelined the question of whether IR provides the type of transparency that broader groups of stakeholders require. As also raised in GRI debates, increasing organisations’ accountability for their use of social and environmental resources requires some mechanism of limiting their motivation or capacity to ignore or ‘greenwash’ information that presents their activities in an unfavourable light. If part of the public case for supporting IR is that it will increase public accountability in this sense, then one question future IIRC releases need to clarify is how the IR framework will perform this additional reporting function.

Dr Dale Tweedie, IGAP Research Fellow.

What is your view of the IIRC’s approach? Is integrated reporting likely to be useful to you or your organisation?