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. 

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