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EXPANDING THE ACCOUNTING ECOSYSTEM

By T. DAVID COLGREN
February 1, 2017
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Nonfinancial capital is a key to strategizing for an environmental future that may go beyond global. Leading climate scientists suggest that if society continues on the current track of global development, a temperature increase of four degrees Celsius could become a near-term reality that will result in an uninhabitable planet.

 

As the population continues to grow, the world requires more resources to sustain life. The continued draining of resources, including natural capital (e.g., healthy trees, potable water, clean air), coupled with the rise in the Earth’s temperatures, will lead to an end to life as we know it. Perhaps this won’t come about in our immediate lifetime—it’s more likely within our children’s lives.

 

We face two major issues—sustaining this world and finding other potential planets that can support human, animal, and plant life. Mars is our neighbor and most promising prospect, a planet that some scientists are seriously considering for possible colonization.

 

Both undertakings will require trillions of dollars in new capital as well as an active, efficient capital market driven by faster, cheaper access to reliable, usable data (both financial and nonfinancial) from the global corporate sector (as well as from government agencies, statistics bureaus, researchers, and others). This access is driven by innovation and the leveraging of new technologies.

 

NONFINANCIAL INFORMATION NEEDED

 

Some people believe that nonfinancial reporting refers only to sustainability or environmental reporting, but many accountants beg to differ. Nonfinancial indicators and metrics can include disclosures around corporate governance, human capital (e.g., skilled professionals), health and safety, intellectual capital (e.g., patents), manufactured capital (e.g., plants and equipment), brand, and reputation.

 

According to the “Components of S&P 500 Market Value” graphic in Intangible Asset Market Value Study, a 2015 study by merchant banking firm Ocean Tomo, a majority of market value—an average of 84%—was seen off the balance sheet in intangibles and nonfinancial measures, leaving a mere 16% attributable to financial performance indicators. Traditional financial reporting disclosures therefore don’t provide an accurate value of a company to the capital markets. Responding to demanding and ever-expanding capital markets in this bold exploratory context requires extrafinancial information (everything beyond financials) to make critical investment decisions. In other words, the financials provide only one dimension of a company’s market value; other indicators and measures are needed to assess the full market value and potential of an organization, and these include disclosures about natural and other capitals indicated above.

 

ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

 

Technology plays a central role in gathering, validating, analyzing, and sharing the nonfinancial information inside and outside organizations. It includes data-sharing standards like XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language), robust aggregation and reporting technologies, and powerful analytics platforms (e.g., R programming language) and communication capabilities (e.g., online data portals with flexible à la carte data rendering and report creation by users). But technology alone isn’t the “magic pill” to cure all pains in this type of reporting.

 

Current sources of nonfinancial information for investors and other stakeholders include stand-alone corporate social responsibility (CSR)/sustainability reports, fully integrated reports, annual reports, sustainability and value-related indices, strategy maps, balanced scorecards, and more. Organizations may use a variety of reporting standards, frameworks, and guidelines to help with their nonfinancial disclosures, including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework and standards, the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) framework and guidelines, the Natural Capital Coalition (NCC) protocol, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) frameworks and standards, and several others (e.g., United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) guidance).

 

Such a fractured approach to disclosure, without a uniform global standard to guide what is reported and how, leads to many challenges around nonfinancial disclosure. This situation can be overwhelming for data users, causing some to skip these vital inputs in their decision making. A lack of current technologies to grapple with the challenges builds skepticism for some but drives innovation and opportunity for others (companies such as Workiva, SAP, and Cr360°) that want to serve this market.

 

CURRENT CHALLENGES

 

Any planetary colonization effort will require newly formed multinational corporations that can leverage technology and gain greater access to a deeper pool of capital to launch and sustain this global interplanetary adventure and also stabilize Earth’s climate.

 

Today there isn’t a sufficient link between what companies are saying in their nonfinancial reports and their overall business strategy in order to understand these immense future opportunities and risks. This introduces challenges around lack of comparability, questionable data integrity, unclear data lineage and traceability back to original sources, lack of data utility across multiple technology platforms and tools, and poor data governance.

 

The available technology and tools don’t necessarily meet all needs around nonfinancial information. At the minimum, nonfinancial information needs to be comparable and reliable to be treated equally with its financial brethren. Sound data governance strategy, monitoring mechanisms, adequate controls, and independent assurance must all be in place in order to raise the value of nonfinancial information.

 

ACCOUNTANTS, FRONT AND CENTER

 

These data challenges sit squarely in the accounting ecosystem. Management accountants can elevate the reliability, utility, quality, consistency, and comparability of nonfinancial information to the same level of the more established financial data sets through application of their core skills and a more strategic orientation—moving them higher up the value chain. Technology becomes a great enabler, which means management accountants must be skilled in how to leverage IT and where to invest in emerging technologies to best position the company for future value and growth.

 

In recent history, thriving capital markets have supported innovation and discoveries that have improved the human condition. All of this progress stems from transparent, credible investment information that has enabled the seamless global allocation of monetary resources. Knowing where that company chooses to use or replenish its natural or other nonfinancial capital is ultimately key to understanding the company’s role in the overall state of the planet. Accountants are the skilled professionals to communicate to the world the information to move us toward longer-term sustainability, even if that includes colonizing Mars.

 

T. David Colgren is president and CEO of Colcomgroup, a consultancy providing corporate sustainability and integrated reporting advisory services. David is a member of the IMA Technology Solutions & Practices Committee and can be reached at dcolgren@colcomgroup.com.
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