Explaining their true contribution

'I never understand why we all have to care about M&S sales,' a leading writer moaned on Twitter, in the middle of the January retail reporting season.

It was a fair point. Marks & Spencer is not a nationalised industry, most people don't work there and increasingly lots of us do not bother to shop there.

So what is the value of Marks & Spencer and how does it make a difference - for good or bad - in our daily lives?

That is the sort of question that integrated reporting will attempt to answer by combining a narrative about financial and non-financial performance in a single report.

It will not only tell you how much profit Marks & Spencer generated and what happened to its shares in any one year, but also what was the financial impact of the high street retailer's business in terms of how many people it employed, how much it spent with suppliers - who in turn created jobs - and how it trained young people, minimised waste, pioneered environmental construction techniques and so on.

Integrated reporting stems from the principle that the value a business creates is much more than just its profits, its dividends and its share price performance.

Recent studies indicate that 80 per cent of an organisation's value is 'hidden' in non-financial assets, not showing up in traditional financial reports.

Integrated reporting demonstrates the ways in which a business creates value over the short, medium and long-term and it is as much a forward-looking demonstration of a company's strategy as a backward-looking scorecard of financial performance.

It has some high profile supporters, not least the Prince of Wales and the current Lord Mayor, lawyer Fiona Woolf. She says: 'I believe this can be a revolutionary movement and a catalyst that can bring about profound changes in business and investor behaviours. The new framework offers an approach that will turn facts into useful, analytical information — a holistic approach that transforms the way in which a company thinks about what it is doing and why it is doing it.'

She says that company reporting is currently like standing on a weighing machine and using the weight to work out your future health. It says nothing of what you will have to eat tomorrow, or lifestyle choices you will make — nor whether the weighing machine itself is working.

A new framework

Last December the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) finally released a framework for this new approach, which was first inspired by Prince Charles's Accounting for Sustainability ideas.

Integrated reporting is already mandatory in South Africa and there are hopes that it will be adopted widely here and in many countries around the world, including fast-growing ones like Brazil, in the next few years.

Indeed 2014 is being talked of as something of a breakthrough year for integrated reporting, with the philosophy rapidly gaining ground with leading companies.

At the launch event for the IIRC's framework, Russell Picot, chief accounting officer at HSBC, said that the financial industry should commit to integrated reporting because 'excessive focus on the short-term does not allow for the efficient allocation of capital and resources'.

He added that businesses now need a 'societal licence to operate', without which 'you will not prosper'.

Jonathan Labrey, communications and policy director at the IIRC, believes that integrated reporting could be the solution to some of the scandals and problems that dragged down the business world's reputation during the last few years of the financial crisis. However, he adds that the trends that are pushing the case for integrated reporting 'were happening before the crisis'.

'The biggest trend of all is the rise of the corporation over the last 30 to 40 years. Since the mid-1990s, some of the biggest economic entities in the world are now businesses, rather than countries. Businesses have enormous financial power and resource power, which means that their stakeholders - their employees and their customers - also have huge power,' Labrey explains.

'This places on the business a responsibility to think about its reputation. Shareholder returns depend on much more than financial reporting or numbers on a balance sheet.'

As the manufacturing economy shrinks and services businesses grow, value - whether it is in intellectual capital or people - resides in places other than plant, property and machinery.

'In the financial crisis we saw that businesses often had a poor understanding of the principal risks facing them, which are sometimes non-financial,' Labrey says, explaining that taking an integrated reporting approach will mean that directors are fulfilling their fiduciary duties more fully.

Baby steps

But a straw-poll of communications agencies that specialise in putting together annual reports under UK rules suggests that most leading businesses are not yet fully committed to integrated reporting.

Companies are aware of it but are using this year to bide their time and assess what more they will need to do to achieve true integrated reporting.

Richard Carpenter, managing partner at Merchant Cantos, is generally approving of the IIRC's framework but says that businesses are holding back.

'There are lots of great things in this but the timing of it means that a lot of companies just can't do it this year. They either don't know about it or don't know how to get a grip on it,' he says.

However, he does believe that integrated reporting can be a force for good. 'If you report on something publicly, it does force you to change your habits and behaviour. Sustainability reports have made many companies introduce new practices, as a result of having to report on things,' he says.

The IIRC's framework has largely been overshadowed, in British businesses' minds, by the new Department for Business's rules on Strategic Reporting, which came into force last October. The priority for most firms is to integrate these new rules - a challenge for some.

According to Jonny McCaig, a senior sustainability consultant at Radley Yeldar, these new rules move UK reports a step closer to integrated reporting anyway.

'In particular, new guidance on business model and resources and relationships is driving the debate about what's material to company performance beyond traditional financial confines and typical marketplace risks,' he explains.

A few companies are already pioneering the newly launched framework, including the Crown Estate, who recently won a PricewaterhouseCoopers Building Public Trust award for their integrated reporting. Meanwhile 12 UK companies - including Marks & Spencer, Unilever, ARM Holdings and Sainsbury's - are members of the IIRC's pilot programme.

It's more than sustainability

'Sustainability reporters have been talking for some time about big issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and talent development, but integrated reporting takes the conversation from the shop floor to the boardroom,' McCaig says.

Alan Hines, managing director of Luminous, an agency that helps many FTSE companies with corporate reporting, agrees that the new BIS standards and the new legislative requirements around reporting remuneration have been concerning companies more than integrated reporting.

'There will be some early adopters — organisations that have an integrated strategy and already meet the bulk of BIS standards,' he says.

'In the past few years the reporting environment has been in constant development, however, the guiding principles of integrated reporting align closely with the BIS recommendations which are largely based on what the best organisations have been doing for some years.'

In short, the two approaches are looking for the same things - clarity of strategy and future orientation, conciseness and a focus on material issues, reliability and completeness.

As Hines says both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the IIRC are looking for 'a clear story, without the clutter, that stands the test of common sense'.

Sally Pilot, director at Black Sun, has already been involved in writing some initial integrated reports for companies. 'If your company is already thinking in an integrated way, and following best practice, this is a logical step and easier than it looks,' she says. 'Really integrated reporting is just good reporting.'

However, it will be two to three years before many of the early adopters produce an integrated report, according to the IIRC and the communications specialists.

The process of compiling the information will perhaps take longer than it has in the past and it will inevitably involve more people. Pilot says: 'In the past we have gone to perhaps three key people; the director of communications for the front of the book, the company secretary for the middle and the finance guy for the numbers at the back. Now we are seeing project teams being put together. Human resources, communications, investor relations, the company secretary and the finance team are all involved and all talking to each other about what goes into the report - which has to be a good thing.'

Senior approval

Inevitably, with a renewed legal and regulatory spotlight on the report, the boardroom is more involved. The IIRC's framework, which is still only a voluntary guidance, anticipates that chief executives will sign off integrated reports - giving endorsement from the top of the company to this communication tool.

KPMG's global head of audit, Larry Bradley, claimed last year that the transformation to integrated reporting would not happen quickly. 'We need to recognise that what lies ahead is a process of radical, long-term transformation of how businesses and other organisations report, and how they think.'

If ever the time was right for business to show how it contributes to society, it is now.

The idea that accountants can save the world is a little farfetched, but the truism that what gets measured, gets managed applies.

As much as it sounds like window dressing, integrated reporting is intended to be far more than that.

And if it can help to explain why effective and profitable businesses, like Marks & Spencer, do make a difference to our daily lives, then that has to be a good thing.