Fresh thinking is required if company governance and risk management are to be strengthened following the deepest global recession the world has ever known. This was the key theme of a major thought leadership conference hosted by ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) in London.
The conference, held on 28 March, looked at four main areas: creating value through governance, risk reporting, channelling corporate behaviour and accounting for uncertainty. The conference aimed both to inform attendees about, and seek their input on, ACCA’s work in these areas to ensure it is robust and relevant to business.
Paul Moxey, Head of Corporate Governance and Risk Management at ACCA said of the conference: “ACCA is committed to taking a lead on research in corporate governance, including risk management, and culture. We want to encourage better understanding by boards, executives and others of how governance can help create value and of how culture affects decision processes. The conference brought these themes together”.
The first session discussed the consultation paper Creating value through governance: towards a new accountability. Corporate governance is vital to societies that depend on business to create economic wellbeing. Ultimately, governance is about how to make good decisions. As providers of financial and other information to support better decision making, accountants play a key role. 76% of those who attended the conference were in either agreement or strong agreement with the idea that creating sustainable value should be the overarching purpose of governance. As Mark Wearden, board consultant and senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln stated, it’s about: “how we get board and senior management to engage in creating value.”
Mismanaged risk was an integral part of the global meltdown and better risk assessment and reporting should increase both the chance of business success as well as allow shareholders to judge how resilient a company will be when risk does materialise. There is a growing understanding that risk reporting needs to change; better risk reporting is integral to better governance; and 88% of the conference attendees agreed that risk should be part of reporting on strategy and not something separate. 80% also thought the current trend towards voluminous reporting on risk, especially at banks, is obscuring the key risks. ACCA is committed to helping companies better report on risk, and will continue to stimulate discussion and publish articles and blogs on this issue before publishing a more comprehensive report in late July.
A healthy culture is a prerequisite of good governance and risk management and, by extension, good long-term corporate performance. Examples of poor culture and the subsequent results have been well documented in both the public and private sectors. Despite regulatory frameworks and best practice, dysfunctional behaviour was too common. At the conference 89% of those answering agreed or strongly agreed that ultimately, the culture of an organisation is more decisive in driving corporate behaviours than are any other regulations or codes.
ACCA, funded by ESRC (the Economic and Social Research Council), is looking at what drives behaviour, how this can be influenced and where additional research is required. Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas, independent consultant and author, was keen to highlight that: “perhaps we should be looking to change behaviours as opposed to cultures”, while Pauline Schu, lead researcher at ACCA for this project, said: “companies should not look to impose one set of values and culture, but instead understand and embrace what drives all their staff”. The paper will be published in June.
Lastly, the conference looked at uncertainty. In a company balance sheet many of a company’s assets and liabilities cannot be known to the level of accuracy implied by what are typically four significant digits used in financial statements to state amounts. As the UK’s Financial Reporting Council now expects audit committees to ensure that financial statements are fair, balanced and understandable guidance on how to consider uncertainty should be helpful. At the conference a discussion document was presented that could lead to such guide for audit committees on how they consider uncertainty in the context of finalising a set of accounts. Examples of how to do this were discussed ranging from use of bar charts, candlestick diagrams, pie charts and Gaussian and other probability distributions. Simple narrative is also important where management can explain the uncertainty they foresee in valuations, detailing what could be expected and noting the possible impact of certain ‘stress situations: e.g. an outcome which is considered highly unlikely but conceivable’. 94% of attendees voting agreed that there is a need to better represent uncertainty in financial statements and 88% agreed that the concept of Accounting for Uncertainty could help audit committees meet their responsibilities.
The conference provided strong support for ACCA’s work on all the four areas. Further information about this work including next steps is available from ACCA.
ACCA has a created a webpage from where all the conference papers and other supporting information including links to the consultation questions on Creating Value and a survey on risk culture can be accessed. During the day, the attendees were asked to vote on 27 questions, their votes can also be viewed from the same webpage.