HBS Conference Encourages Sustainable Corporate Reporting

Business professionals from several countries and a wide variety of fields spent two days last week discussing integrated reporting—a means of conveying companies’ non-financial performance, in addition to traditional financial information—at Harvard Business School last week during a conference organized by Business School Professor Robert G. Eccles,

Eccles, an advocate for the adoption of integrated reporting, has co-written a book on the topic, and is a founding member of the International Integrated Reporting Committee, which promotes the practice.

Corporations that adopt this method of reporting combine financial, environmental, and other performance information into one annual report intended to allow stakeholders to judge a company by more than its profitability.

Delivering the conference’s welcome address, Business School Dean Nitin Nohria expressed his frustration that the public’s perception of business leaders has become less favorable over the past few years, but said that integrated reporting would be one way to help restore that confidence.

Eccles said that the practice also had the potential to change how companies perceive themselves.

“Once you make the commitment to sustainable reporting, it starts to change the way you see yourselves as a company,” he said. “This gets at the fundamental question: are companies here just to serve shareholders?”

Beiting Cheng ’09, a Business School doctoral candidate who helped plan the event, said she was pleased at the conference’s ability to foster collaboration on this issue among business leaders who would not ordinarily interact. The conference included representatives from accounting firms, consulting firms, investment houses, and other corporations.

Over 100 attendees had the opportunity to discuss the challenges of implementing integrated reporting and to look at case studies of companies that have already adopted the practice.

The practice has been institutionalized in South African companies, where companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are required to publish integrated reports.

Marilee McInnis, public relations manager for Southwest Airlines—one of the few  American companies to have already created an integrated annual report—said the airline did so as part of its philosophy that puts employees first, customers second, and shareholders third. Still, she said, an integrated report is important for investors.