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By Robert Bruce, Accounting and Business commentator and journalist

Accountants might not be stereotypical superheroes but if they can channel their enthusiasm for non-financial reporting into one roadmap, they could help rescue the planet.

It is said that it is hard to get accountants up on their feet a ta conference, let alone exhibiting exuberance. At the September conference of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) all this changed. Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council For Sustainable Development, and now the deputy chair of the IIRC, called for all accountants present to stand up. They did. Bakker swept a hand around the room. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ he said. ‘These are the people who are going to save the world’. It was a bold gesture and a galvanising one.

But as the conference heard from one after another of the companies working in the IIRC pilot programme, which captures the experience of implementing integrated reporting, the more it made sense. The finance function is becoming the engine room for a form of reporting which in the world of the IIRC, ‘aims to communicate the “integrated thinking” through which management applies a collective understanding of the full complexity of value creation to investors and other stakeholders’. And the more investors and stakeholders understand the part that things other than the narrow financials play in driving strategy, the more influence the non-financials will have.

A week later the bandwagon arrived in London at the first Non-Financial Reporting conference, hosted by Deloitte and in association with ACCA and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Referring to the Amsterdam conference, Jenny Harrison, UK lead for the carbon and integrated reporting at Deloitte, described it as ‘invigorating’. ‘You felt these people would go back to their organisations and show the markets that this style of reporting can be concise, relevant and about integrating the thinking throughout their organisation,’ she said.

But it is also clear there is a wide range of views, inputs and attitudes from all the interested parties involved in making this process work. And there is the political difficulty in deciding upon a preferred system for putting all this together. Both the work of the GRI and the IIRC came in for criticism for, in case of the GRI, being too complex and resistant to change, and, in the case of the IIRC, being perceived as a bit of a closed shop. Much of this is the inevitable squabbling that happens when more than one model exists.

‘Some scepticism about the value of lengthy and complex GRI-style reports was expressed’, says Roger Adams, director, special assignments at ACCA, ‘but the lack of obvious widespread support for integrated reports seemed to indicate that preparers and users alike need more time with, and exposure to, integrated reports in order to see whether or not the emerging integrated reporting model represents a real step forward in terms of improved corporate reporting. Whichever reporting model is used, it is the issue of what to report and to whom that remains crucial. Reporters can construct complex risk matrices internally, but it is still of utmost importance to engage with the key stakeholder groups in order to understand how their concerns can be turned into meaningful reporting and enhance accountability.;

At the Amsterdam conference, Paul Druckman chief executive of the IIRC, made this a central point. He described the IIRC community as ‘a growing global community of businesses and investors who recognise that corporate reporting is as much about effective communication as it is about compliance with rigid rules’. And this is why integrated reporting has a transformative quality. ‘Corporate reporting,’ he said, ‘ is more than a good communications tool. It influences behaviour, within organisations and by investors, and it underpins the efficiency and productivity of our capital markets. So when governments, regulators and policy-makers talk about creating the conditions for a more responsible and responsive capitalism, rooted in activity that creates and sustains value, this is the business we are in.’

In the end, the Non-Financial Reporting conference, with all its many disparate contributions, suggested that corralling the different strands into a recognisable business-led movement was probably the answer.

“We need to gather all this enthusiasm into one roadmap,’ says Harrison, ‘Regulation is not the answer to improving corporate reporting. What are needed are examples of how this allows you to manage your business better. It needs to be more widespread. The IIRC is doing a great job, but it is the companies taking part in the pilot programme, and indeed those beyond that will make the difference.’

This post first appeared in Accounting and Business UK November 2012.