Transparency is fast becoming the most important tool corporations can use. Not long ago, management determined what was relevant and stakeholders were notified on a need-to-know basis. Now the tables have turned and stakeholders have the ability to demand information of all types and if companies are not willing to provide it, those stakeholders now have the resources to discover (or in some cases, uncover) it for themselves.
Adding transparency to corporate reporting still seems to be a work in progress. As the SEC s ruminates over IFRS and its impact on financial reporting, corporate sustainability and responsibility reporting is fast becoming one of the popular ways for companies to give stakeholders a snapshot of its social, environmental, risk, and governance performance.
The problem from a practical perspective is that it’s difficult to consume all information in an efficient manner. That’s where the idea of integrated reporting comes in. Simply, it combines the the traditional financial report along with the non-financial information presented in the corporate responsibility, social responsibilty or ESG report.
One Report, Integrated Reporting for a Sustainable Strategy is a book written by Robert G. Eccles, senior lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard University and Michael P. Krzus, a public policy and external affairs partner with Grant Thornton.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Mr Krzus recently about One Report, covering topics like what kind of data it consists of, how it will change corporate reporting, and what the future holds. This is part one of a two part interview. Check back for part two tomorrow.
Going Concern: How can you best summarize what integrated reporting is, how it will be different and how it will improve corporate reporting.
Michael Krzus: On it’s face it’s a very simple idea – the notion of an integrated report really involves the combination of the traditional financial or corporate report and combining it with corporate sustainability, responsibility or ESG report and combing them into a single package. However, that doesn’t mean that companies will staple together two reports, each one about 150 pages long, that results in one report that’s 300 pages long.
If you look at one of the companies we talk about in the book, United Technologies here in the U.S. and Danish company Novo Nordisk, each of their integrated reports perhaps have 115-120 pages and what both have a very robust website. Just because something may not be deemed material for the integrated report, there is still a lot of information that both of those companies, as well as others, present in very easy-to-navigate websites. So one of the things that we’re seeing is that integrated reporting is really helping develop very advanced websites.
Similarly, I was working on a couple of presentations on the German chemical company BASF has a page on their website that will allow you to link to 200 different global social media outlets including the likes of Facebook and Twitter. So we’re really starting to see that kind of engagement develop from companies that are embracing integrated reporting as well.
Companies are using the idea of an integrated report to better understand their own internal concepts of materiality and by engaging with their stakeholders and understanding what they think is material or what their material risk exposures are. It’s a disservice to the broad stakeholder community that some mainstream analysts don’t give consideration to some of the environmental or social risks that exist.
From the perspective of the socially responsible investor or perhaps a non-governmental organization that follows a very narrow or very critical mission, they may not understand the trade-offs that these company have made. We think that the idea of a single integrated report will help broaden the perspective and help them make an informed decision.
GC: Considering a traditional corporate responsibility report, how the data change? Similarly, will the data change from the two separate reports combining into a single report?
MK: There are relationships between financial and non-financial performers and vice versa. Companies need to better explain what those relationships are.
One example is BMW. On one hand, water is a relatively small cost that goes into an automobile but in terms of water as a resource, it is an increasingly scarce resource in certain parts of the world. BMW has decided to make huge investments in reusing water and they actually have a plant in Austria that doesn’t bring fresh water to the plant, they just continually reuse it. The benefit, as it turns out, is because of their focus and because they’re a few steps ahead of other automobile manufacturers, they’ve got a cost advantage. Making that kind of discussion clear, it’s not just about cutting CO2 emissions, but also process improvements that enable companies to produce more at a lesser cost.
I think the other difference that you’ll see in the new reports is that the mainstream analysis will be giving more consideration to ESG issues. The traditional analyst has several companies that they’re following and these companies have different sectors in an annual report, corporate responsibility report, and many others. It’s extremely difficult to consume that many reports. My co-author and I interviewed an analyst once who brought in a stack of about 60 reports because some of the companies that she followed were issuing financial, environmental, and responsibility reports all separately, and she said “there’s no way.” So I think the integrated report will help that.
A couple more examples: last September Bloomberg launched a product that involves making global reporting initiatives that available on their Bloomberg terminals and CalPers’ board has undertaken a project to integrate ESG factors into their analysis better and in turn, push that down that to their asset managers. So we are starting to see some movement. That relationship between financial and non-financial performance and making things easier for the analysts to consider non-financial information will be the two biggest changes that will come about as result of wider adoption of integrated reporting.
GC: And CalPers is not a lightweight. If you see someone like someone like that setting an example, there are other companies or large holders of assets that will follow their lead.
MK: CalPers is not a lightweight at all. We’ve developed a good working relationship with a couple of people at CalPers and they are taking the idea of integrated reporting very, very seriously.
When you think about it, if CalPers goes to their asset managers and says we want you to integrate ESG into your traditional analysis and here’s the way we want you to come up with it. I think that’s going to have a ripple effect across other pension fund managers and assets managers other than those at CalPers.
GC: What would you say are the biggest benefits that stakeholders will get out of integrated reporting?
MK: I think the biggest benefit is actually going to be better engagement with companies they want information about. In my opinion, a company cannot undertake an integrated reporting project without really listening to the stakeholders. For a company to understand the perspectives, not that they’ll all be material, but that they’ll be willing to engage in that dialogue.
And it may not be in ways that companies are not comfortable with whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or something else, I think that process of stakeholder engagement is going to be mutually beneficial. The companies will better understand who’s out there and what they’re expectations are. And from the user perspective, it they will have a better understanding about what some of the tradeoffs are, as well as what some of the reporting implications might be. Overall, I think it will create a better overall understanding for both groups.
And by having more robust information, it’s going to allow for better decision making. I see that as a benefit on both sides. From the investor side, they’re going to have a much better understanding of the some the risks a company faces. An investor has to consider a lot of intangibles when making a decision. Whether its the business risks to climate change or the innovation process. If that kind of information is made available, it’s going to allow investors to make better decisions and who the winners and the losers are.
GC: Is there any risk that stakeholders might have too much information?
MK: Frankly, yes but I think in some ways it’s an overblown risk because when Bob and I looked at some of the oldest integrated reporters, you clearly see an evolution. A great example is BASF. Because of the diversity of their operations and the nature of the chemical business, there’s a lot of relevant information, especially about risk and materiality of certain exposures. About a year ago I spent half a day with their reporting team looking at both the financial and sustainability side. They do a very good job of looking in the mirror. One of the first comments was that the integrated report was still too long; that they needed to do a better job of getting their arms around materiality and again, the dialogue with the stakeholders helped them do that.
Over time as companies engage their stakeholder through various technologies, they will reduce the report down to a very information rich package. So yes, there’s a risk for too much information but I don’t think that will stop anyone.
Don’t forget to check back here tomorrow for part 2!