The CR world, such as it is, which is to say not the real world (but I still love it!), is full of talk of something called integrated reporting. It’s an outgrowth of the 20-year-old field of sustainability reporting, and some say it’s sustainability reporting’s second coming, others its demise, and still others merely a distraction. But since Bob Eccles and Mike Krzus published their book One Report last year, arguing for a single, integrated reporting framework to replace existing regimes of regular financial and non-financial company disclosure it has felt as though IR – whatever it is – is a foregone conclusion.
And right there is both the genius and the rub: We still don’t know what IR is. That is because no consensus has yet emerged as to what this thing will finally look like. It still has the impact of a Rorschach test, where we can all feel good about its broad, positive intentions – but without any of the challenges of a concrete proposal.
I don’t doubt the enormity of this task, given the 500-year history of financial accounting (still not consistent and harmonized on a global basis) and the rather shorter history of sustainability reporting (still a niche practice, still inconsistently applied). But I can’t help thinking its efforts are at risk of being misdirected. I worry that in the rush to integrate – I hesitate to say that resistance is futile – we risk taking some big steps backward if we are not careful.
If I may, I would like to offer some observations, requests and suggestions – for whatever they are worth – to the bright lights behind integrated reporting, which they may find informative or provocative in one way or another.
1. IR appears to be largely driven by the investor-financial accountant axis, with an emphasis on influencing investor decisions (not exclusively; management is another big target of IR), notably by ending the rampant short-termism we all know and love. However, some 70% of all Wall Street trades today are executed by robots. Investment today is very nearly exclusively the result of pre-defined algorithms, self-executing and self-reinforcing, with absolutely no human thought whatsoever. What we need to influence are those algorithms, and it seems to me the thinking around IR is nowhere near being able to do this. This means the risk that IR will end up irrelevant to its putative audience is high.
Today’s financial accounting performs an indispensable hygiene role, when well-executed, ensuring a basic minimum level of reliability in financial statements. But investment isn’t what it once was. How will you ensure the results of the IR efforts will actually be used by the right people and at scale, taking a realistic assessment of how financial markets work?
2. Audiences for sustainability reports have always been low, and always specialized (raising my hand here). The problem, as I see it, is that sustainability reports have no natural audience. Integrating sustainability data with financial data in a single set of indicators will be unlikely to change this state of affairs much. There will still be serious problems with the audience because the storied ‘one report’ does not reflect the way most people make decisions about companies, and that includes most investors. As Niels Christenson (ex-Nestle) said at last week’s JustMeans conference on Integrated Reporting: ‘Before you can integrate reporting, you need to integrate thinking.’
As other observers have begun to point out, there is actually no shortage of information and data on corporate financial and non-financial performance, strategy and management. There is a serious shortage of understanding, however. This is nothing new. Remember Enron? Remember how they supposedly lied and failed to disclose material information about their financial performance and the status of all those off-balance sheet special purpose entities? It turns out that virtually every fact an investor ever needed to know about it was in one of the company’s regulated, publicly-available filings to the SEC. It’s just that there was so much of it, and it was so complex, that nobody seems to have had either the time or the skill to make any sense of it.
I would like to see the IR movement address this central challenge, not just play around with indicators that won’t enable deeper understanding. Which brings me to…
3. Have you noticed what they can do with software these days? Yes, we have loads of websites, increasing numbers of ratings and the promise of XBRL, but those are still what you might call if-you-have-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail solutions to a highly complex problem. If you already have a great deal of awareness and sensitivity to what really drives corporate performance, you can probably build your own ‘report’ in a few clicks. For the rest of us, the technology already exists (here’s just one example) to analyze not just company self-reported data, but also external analysis, opinion, stakeholder activity, media and any number of other totally unstructured sources to understand strategy, performance and trends in context
In light of this, it would seem most powerful for the IR agenda to address how to marshal the dizzying variety of potential information in an integrated way. And not, I would argue, to spend even a minute discussing what indicators stakeholders need companies to report to provide a picture of integrated performance. That’s a last-century paradigm.
4. What would be awesome would be a lot more information coming out of the IIRC, the ‘stewards’ of integrated reporting, who have been set up for well over a year, but haven’t yet published anything of any substance. It’s completely possible that my ranting and pontification are off base, but we haven’t had enough communication from the people best placed to know to say one way or another. What are your design criteria? How would an integrated framework work in practice? What contributions can stakeholders and practitioners make to this process besides sending in a form-letter email to persons unknown? What have you done to ensure the relevance and credibility of this effort beyond the financial accountancy profession? What exactly have you talked about for all these months?
Surely, I’m not alone in wanting to know. And surely, these questions will be answered in time. But let’s stop being passive recipients – I want to know what’s on your minds, too, and what the world really needs – and doesn’t need – from integrated reporting.