Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Is Impact Assessment the New Black? And if so… Should we teach it?

By Dr Diane-Laure Arjaliès, Assistant Professor, Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada

Discovering the buzz around impact assessment is usually a source of anxiety for any social and environmental accountant who tries to catch up with the field. What? A new standard? I have not yet finished reading the last update of the GRI I am teaching next week, not even started to look at this report on natural capital (which I planned to read in the plane, but which got somehow stuck in my luggage) and I am still working on this CSEAR blog on integrated reporting I promised, already 18 months ago. So, a new standard?  Thank you, but no, thank you.

But impact assessment is relentless. Newsletter, after newsletter, report, after report, it never stops. And comes the day when zeroing in Facebook, you eventually click on "Is Impact Assessment the New Black?" You secretly hope that you will finally get a sense of what all this is about, and be reassured that indeed, you definitely do not need to spend time on it. At this moment, your anxiety reaches its peak: there is no standard.

Impact assessment is everywhere. The United Nations, B-Corporations, non-for-profits, investors: all want to show that they are making a difference. Governments obsessed with transparency are no exception. In a market-driven world, infused with dreams of open democracy nurtured by big data, if money gets used it has to trigger change, on the ground. What change means, what ground comprises, and how both relate to each other, however, are pretty unclear. What matters is the ability of an organization to demonstrate an impact, of some sort, on some people, possibly with some numbers.

When faced with this horrendous discovery, the social and environmental accountant often envisions three options. The first one, rooted in a somehow pessimistic Foucauldian approach to life, leads you to conclude that "those political numbers are only here to increase the power of finance in our society - damned." Nurtured by the despair that years of academic rejections and pointless A papers published by colleagues who did not deserve them (ours are always fair and useful of course), you send an email to your old friend, asking "Do you do something about impact assessment? Just wondering."

Since you care about the planet and its inhabitants - otherwise you would not do this job, you are actually already envisioning the second option, "maybe I should have a look after all, United Nations, that's something." It is 4 pm, you do not have time to start something big anyway, so you eventually do it: You open the folder "To Read" in your mailbox. The folder where you put all these newsletters and mails sent by colleagues you plan to look at, but that you have never read: Yes, this folder. And as you are skimming the reports, the third option slowly appears: "is impact assessment a way for people to think about what they do and what they want, instead of stupidly applying frameworks?"

This is it: you have just opened Pandora's box! You realize that impact assessment is not completely different, not yet quite the same, as social and environmental accounting. Impact assessment appears to you as a sort of post-modern form of accounting, that would have digested ANT and institutional theory, to be able to acknowledge that "yes, global warming is a fact, but no, financial performance does not exist 'out there.'" As any form of accounting you may think? Yes, but this time, it's official. No need to pretend that measures are objective or that you could shape any reality you want, just because metrics are performative. Impact assessment does not look for neutrality or utopia, but for real change, whatever real means, whatever change is.

Now, you are quite convinced: impact assessment seems interesting, at least from an intellectual perspective. Yet you wonder: "is it reasonable to teach a topic for which there is no standard, a myriad of values, many controversies and infinite decisions to make?" You hesitate: of course, you believe that your job is to teach students to be critical and you would like to do it. But you also think about the CPA curriculum, this new research project and those bad evaluations you will receive if students realize that the world is not rational and fair value is not really fair. You love challenges, but not up to that point.

Good news! Someone has already done it and will happily share her teaching material with colleagues genuinely interested in trying new things. A brand-new course on impact assessment, based on field work and case study methods, for which almost everything is available: syllabus, teaching notes, cases studies, field work guidelines, and list of available resources.

The file can be downloaded here.

Students have done a fantastic job, working with farms, Syrian refugee programs, social enterprises, investment funds and indigenous reserves. And you know what? You can give students and organizations the credit they deserve. Everybody can think, when they are allowed to: Yes, even in business schools; Yes, even in North America.

Now, you can close this blog, and go back to work.

For further information, do not hesitate to contact Diane-Laure Arjaliès, Ivey Business School. 

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Can you quantify social outcomes? A critical look at the Social Return on Investment (SROI)

by Dr Pål Vik, University of Salford, UK

It is hard to compete with the allure of precision and quantitative measures to guide investment and management efforts. On the face of it, quantitative metrics offer a comparable, intuitive, and seemingly robust and objective measure of how well an organisation or company is performing.

The not-for-profit and social enterprise sector has not been immune to this allure. In fact, there has been a distinct shift towards quantitative approaches in proving their social value added in the last few years. Social Return on Investment, or SROI for short, has been among one of the more popular quantitative approaches used by the sector. SROI generates a monetary value of social impact for each pound or dollar invested net of costs. Its' appeal is reinforced by the similarity to conventional cost benefit analysis, making it easily understandable. An important aspect of SROI is that it links the services and products of an organisation with the social outcomes for individuals and groups external to that organisation, generally by comparing the users of a service with a benchmark or control group.

In my recent paper (Vik 2017) I critically assess the viability of calculating a monetary return for social outcomes drawing on over 20 large-scale microfinance impact studies spanning over two decades. There are important lessons from microfinance as the sector has used increasingly sophisticated quantitative approaches to prove social impacts to investors and funders. The chief difficulty has been to link client outcomes to the services provided by microfinance organisations (implicit in the SROI methodology).

It all boils down to one question: How can you find a control group or benchmark that is similar in all aspects save the intervention? Turns out, this is much more difficult than one might think because of two biases. Firstly, those that decide to take out a loan with a microfinance provider are inherently different from non-clients, including in ways that are not easily observable (such as risk aversion and entrepreneurial acumen). Secondly, the clients that these organisations serve have been selected through a careful screening process. In a sense, the likelihood of success may be a precondition to rather than an outcome of the access to microfinance services. These biases are likely to lead to overestimates of social return on investment especially where interventions require a high level of initiative on behalf of the beneficiary and access is subject to a careful screening or selection process.

In my paper, I conclude that rather than striving to apply increasingly sophisticated quantitative methods to quantifying and attributing social outcomes, there should be greater recognition of the limitations of SROI and similar methods. The value of these tools lies in highlighting the value of activities with no obvious monetary value rather than calculating an accurate social return on investment. To paraphrase the British philosopher Carveth Read, it is better to be roughly right than exactly wrong.


Editor's note: This blog post is based on Pål Vik's article "What's so Social about Social Return on Investment? A Critique of Quantitative Social Accounting Approaches Drawing on Experiences of International Microfinance", for which he was awarded the Reg Mathews Memorial Prize in 2017. The Reg Mathews Memorial Prize is an annual award for the paper considered to have made the most significant contribution towards the social and environmental accounting literature published in Social and Environmental Accountability Journal (SEAJ). The paper is selected by the editorial board of SEAJ and is named in memory of Professor Reg Mathews, a leading figure in the development of social and environmental accounting.

As part of the award, Pål Vik's original paper published in Social and Environmental Accountability Journal will be available with free access until February 2019.


References:

Vik, Pål (2017). What's so Social about Social Return on Investment? A Critique of Quantitative Social Accounting Approaches Drawing on Experiences of International Microfinance. Social and Environmental Accountability Journal, 37(1), 6-17.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Social and Environmental Accountability Journal (SEAJ)

Matias Laine and Helen Tregidga, SEAJ Joint Editors


SEAJ is the journal of CSEAR and an important part of our community.  Its strength relies on the CSEAR community and as such we would like to take this opportunity to update you on the journal and also outline the various ways you can contribute. 

There have been some recent changes at SEAJ.  Coming to the end of his term as Joint Editor, Carlos Larrinaga vacates the position (Helen will now join Matias as Joint Editor from 2018 – 2021).  We would like to thank him for his service in this role in which time that the journal has continued to develop.  He continues to support the journal in his role as Convenor.  We have also welcomed several new members to the Editorial Board. We are pleased to have them join the team. The SEAJ Editorial Board, we believe, is an amazing collection of scholars in our field drawn from across the globe.  Representative of the growing diversity (geographically and topic wise) of our community.  We encourage you to visit our journal homepage and view our Editorial Board members and journals scope.

While we believe the journal is in a good position, we are mindful of the increasing pressures of the publishing environment.  We need to be mindful and put strategies in place to ensure its success.  We believe one of the strengths and opportunities of the journal is its association with the vibrant CSEAR community and a supportive Editorial Board.  As such, we take the opportunity here to outline our strategy moving forward, and also how you, as CSEAR members and friends, can assist the journal in the coming period.

We know that the driver of achieving our aim of developing the journal in a way that meets the needs of the CSEAR community is an increased profile and, above all, quality submissions.  As such, we have a few ideas for doing this.

In order to raise the profile of the journal we will be starting to tweet new journal content (via the @csearUK Twitter account) and also calls for papers for the journal.  Please, if you are on Twitter, follow CSEAR and retweet SEAJ content as appropriate.  Tweet about the journal and any paper/review that you read.  We know that in the current environment this is important to raise awareness of the journals content and increase readership. 

We are also looking to increase the use of the Commentaries section of the journal.  Commentaries, outlined in the journals aims and scope, are short editorial reviewed pieces which can take the form of a polemic, debate, definitional pieces, revisiting/reviving previous issues/papers, reviews etc.  These types of publications fit with the aim and ethos of the journal and we believe are an ideal way for authors to engage on issues and topics important to our field.

To foster this section of the journal our intent is to commission some pieces from members of our community (including some of you).  We hope that if you are invited you will agree.  We also strongly invite you to contact us with possible commentaries – either ideas you think are worth exploring (ideally with possible suggestions for those we could ask) – or with ideas for pieces that you are interested in contributing yourself!

Special issues continue to be a strong contributor to content.  The special issue for this year (edited by Delphine Gibassier and Simon Alcouffe) is in the final stages of production and submissions are strong for the 2019 special issue on Sustainability Governance (edited by Leonardo Rinaldi).  For the 2020 special issue it has been decided that an appropriate theme would be ‘SEA 2020 and Beyond’. The official information for this issue along with dates for submission etc will be announced shortly, but the aim here is to attract submissions which consider the future of SEA – whether that be issues, theories, methods etc.  Once again, this theme fits the ethos of the journal and our aim to create new academic literature in the broad field of social, environmental and sustainable development accounting, accountability, reporting and auditing.  Please consider supporting this issue by reflecting on your own research in relation to the theme and consider submitting to the issue and encouraging others you know to prepare submissions. 

We also ask that you also consider the journal for regular submission pieces – and again, encourage others to submit their work.  The journal’s aims and scope note that the journal “provides a forum for a wide range of different forms of academic and academic-related communications whose aim is to balance honesty and scholarly rigour with directness, clarity, policy-relevance and novelty”.  We realise we can’t compete for some types of publications with other high ranked journals, nor has this ever been the goal of SEAJ, but we can contribute to the publishing of good quality content that comes in various forms from longer empirical papers to shorter pieces which provide novel contributions. Likewise, in line with our editorial policy and vision, we continue to have interest in novelty and innovation also when it comes to the shape and form of submissions. Interesting and insightful contributions do not always fall within a shape and style expected in most scholarly journals, and hence at SEAJ we remain open to alternative approaches. Obviously, this does not imply that anything would go, but, rather, that in our view scholarly rigour, clarity and relevance do not depend on a manuscript following a particular form or structure.

And, we can’t forget the reviews section of the journal.  We want to thank many of you for supporting this section of the journal – including our emerging scholar community.  Reviews are again a great way for the journal to participate in discussions of topics of interest and critically engage with the field of research.  The reviews team (Michelle Rodrigue, Hannele Mäkelä and Lies Bouten) would be happy to hear from you with potential review items.

Lastly, we want to take the opportunity to thank you for your continued support for the journal. As we note above, a key strength of the journal is a strong and supportive community of researchers.   We aim to continue to provide a journal that supports that community – and look for ways the journal can further reflect the vibrant important research that we all do.

We look forward to working with you all to build SEAJ!

Friday, 6 October 2017

A thank you letter and report from the 4th CSEAR Emerging Scholars Colloquium, August 2017

By Ph.D students and emerging scholars attending the CSEAR Emerging Scholars Colloquium, August 2017

After a great experience at the 4th Emerging Scholars Colloquium (ESC) and 29th Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research (CSEAR) conference, some of us Ph.D students and emerging scholars would like to thank the organisers for the great opportunity they provided us with this August in St. Andrews. With this letter, we also would like to give some advice to prospective emerging scholars, as well as general comments about CSEAR and ESC UK 2017, with the underlying hope of helping others interested in attending over the coming years.

The annual CSEAR conference and ESC at St. Andrews University, Scotland, together provide a great opportunity for young scholars to present their work at an early stage and receive feedback from within the community. This is not only due to the great location Saint Andrews offers, but also because the event provides a perfect networking opportunity to interact with the faculty members that kindly host us.

The ESC began on the 28th of August, 2017 and was followed by attendance at the main conference. Forty minutes were reserved for each emerging delegate to present her/his work and collect feedback from those more experienced in the field. During CSEAR ESC 2017, the Ph.D students and emerging scholars totalled 25 and came from all over the world. For example, universities such as Stockholm School of Economics, Bristol University, the University of Leicester, the University of Dundee, the University of Burgos, Paris Dauphine, PLS Research University, Bergamo University, the University of Central Florida and Auckland University of Technology were represented, among others.

Delegates were divided into sessions that dealt with different themes and research areas. Moreover, various theoretical backgrounds and diverse methodological approaches were presented by the emerging scholars, and thereafter discussed by faculty members with different research profiles. Professors such as Charles Cho (York University), Carmen Correa (Universidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla), Jesse Dillard (Portland State University), Matias Laine (University of Tampere), Giovanna Michelon (Exter University), Den Patten (Illinois State University), Michelle Rodrigue (Université Laval) and Helen Tregidga (Royal Holloway, University of London) acted as the discussants.

The evening before the ESC began, we had the possibility of meeting one another during dinner at Agnes Blackadder Hall. There, some of the faculty members welcomed us, as well as introduced us to each other, allowing us to feel more at ease. Getting to know our colleagues is key for the CSEAR community and this is achieved not only during the plenary sessions in an academic capacity, but also during the evenings’ social events at the infamous pub ‘The Central Bar’ which involved relation-building in addition to some deeper academic discussions.

In our opinion, the ESC and CSEAR were successes, and a special thanks goes to those who organised the conference, as well as the faculty members who welcomed us. Moreover, we are extremely grateful to the brilliant researchers within the community for their continued work and inspiration both more generally, but also specifically when participating in the discussions. With this letter, we want to show how fruitful this 4th ESC has been for us, and we hope to see you again next year… a little older and a little wiser, and perhaps with a little more emerging scholars attending.

Thank you for welcoming us to your community of social and environmental accountability research.

Ph.D. Students: 
Jamiu, Muhammad, Clarence, Rebecca, Iris, Emilia, Zhifeng, Joselyne, Anees, Leanne, Teng, John, Melita, Osai, Iredele, Alexandros, Nadra, Enrique, Shamrin, Juliette, Chaoyuan, Hyemi, Madlen, Di, Rijadh, Jingjing, David, Ahmad, Sisi.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Teaching Integrated Reporting: A French Experiment

By Professor Delphine Gibassier, Toulouse Business School

When I started teaching (during my PhD and after), the topic of teaching Social and Environmental Accounting related topics, such as environmental accounting, carbon accounting or integrated reporting was not easy to bring to (French) business schools. I was told business companies did not care, or that students could at most get “an introduction” because the topic was not on the chartered accountancy exam. While I was able to teach an optional course in carbon accounting in 2013 thanks to a SEA research-focused colleague, the door remained closed elsewhere.

Integrated reporting, however, raised the interest of my accounting colleagues. For some reason, it was easier to see through the connection between accounting and sustainability thanks to this new kind of reporting. 

In my institution, I introduced the topic through a conference to our accounting major students in 2014, with Carol Adams and Lisa French (from IIRC). After this introduction, I first taught integrated reporting during a 6-hour class in 2015. However, the topic was too complex to master in this short amount of time, and I was not pleased with the outcome. In 2016, there was the option to make a new 30-hour course, in English, in our department. I proposed to develop a new course on integrated reporting, and it was accepted. I proposed to Carol Adams teaching half of the class. She helped me developed the syllabus and brought her experience in building integrated reports in practice to the class. It was great to be able to gather both our experiences for the students to be close to practice. 

When I thought about how to best introduce a topic that is still “in the making”, with little practice, I decided to develop new teaching methods. First, I wanted to develop critical thinking. I launched a twitter challenge. Students had to look for 10 articles, view points etc. for and against integrated reporting. Then they had to tweet the link with # so that everyone would be able to look for the documents. After collecting the links from all the students, they had to write an essay, in groups, on what were the positive elements of the integrated reporting trend and what could be critiqued.



Second, I needed them to master key concepts of integrated report. For this, I used an existing case study (DBS: Journey to Integrated Reporting), and built another one on “materiality”.

Third, I decided to focus on the key accounting concept in integrated reports: “the capitals”. Since there is not “best practice” yet and that it is an “ongoing” practice, I decided to built a database of existing integrated reports. Instead of finding around 300 worldwide, I went to develop a 1300+integrated reports database. From this database, I extracted around 50 reports on “business models” (with capitals), natural capital, human/intellectual/social capitals, as well as a few that reported using stakeholder voices as focus. By groups, students had to develop their own analytical grid to decide what were the “best” integrated reports on “natural capital” for example, according to them. During the teaching hours, we discussed together what were the key criteria. They wrote a first presentation after the 30-hour seminar, a second version after 3 weeks, and a final version after another 2 weeks.

Example of analytical grids used:

Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Connectivity
Readability
Completeness
Materiality/Relevance
Transparency
Comparability
Measurability
Conciseness
Material issues
Connectivity
Standard KPIs (for each capital)
Transparency and honesty: it's not only about identify strengths but also weaknesses
Targets (to challenge and motivate management and allow comparison)
Actions: Are we going to improve our weaknesses? Are we going to develop our
strengths? How?
Comparability (evolution past/today)
Completeness
Reliability
Materiality
Key content
Transparency
Habilitation/certification
Value chain
Connectivity
Temporality


All in all, the teaching was very much based on developing students’ own understanding of integrated reporting, while still mastering key concepts behind the idea of integrated reports. Moreover, it was a subtle way to introduce the fact that value is multifaceted, and that accounting has to develop other ways of accounting for it. Finally, students questioned the notion of “accountability” that is reported in integrated reports, looking at stakeholders to which the companies were “talking”, the use of assurance, materiality, and the absence of reporting on potential negative events.

Below some resources for teaching IR to your class.

Resources for teaching Integrated Reporting

Online resources:
Carol Adams’ blog: https://drcaroladams.net/ (over 56 resources on IR)

Elaine Cohen’s blog: http://csr-reporting.blogspot.fr

Sustainable Brands Reporting 3.0 series:
Reporting 3.0’s Reporting Blueprint: Triggering a Regenerative, Inclusive & Open Economy
How to Transform Today’s ‘Senseless’ ESG Data into Tomorrow’s Actionable Knowledge
Purpose + Context = Connectedness
Integration (Data Blueprint)
Definition of Overall Success (Reporting Blueprint)
Contextualization (Data Blueprint)
Securing Scalability (Reporting Blueprint)
Activation & Acceleration (Data Blueprint)
Conclusion

Databases with IR reports:
GRI (choose “integrated reports” to filter)

Content:

Case Studies:
2/ Danone, will be published at Ivey Publishing (available end of 2018, write me an email if you would like to be informed)

Our resources: