Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Crowdsourcing Corporate Transparency through Social Accounting: Conceptualising the ‘Spotlight Account’

By Dr Stephanie Perkiss, Dr Bonnie Dean & Dr Belinda Gibbons, University of Wollongong, Australia 

Winners of the 2019 Reg Mathews Memorial Prize 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. The paper is FREE to download here.

Image L-R: Stephanie Perkiss, Theresa Heithaus
(Program Manager, WikiRate), Belinda Gibbons, Bonnie Dean.
Organisations play a key role in addressing global economic, social and environmental challenges. Increasingly we are seeing organisations selecting to integrate sustainability activities into their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts. Yet, these CSR reports are indispensably limited, privileging self-serving discourses. 

External accounts, such as alternative and counter accounts, offer opportunities to increase transparency and accountability in the areas of sustainable development. While external accounts challenge organisations’ social accounting, there remains a need to develop this further and investigate new models of social accounting that engage multiple viewpoints and stakeholders. With the evolution and public adoption of technology into our everyday lives, there is great potential for crowdsourced applications to enhance organisational accountability. 

This paper explores the role of accounting in the context of social and environmental change agendas and introduces a new framework for social accounting, the ‘Spotlight Account’. What is significant about the Spotlight Account is the use of the crowd and technology as a way of creating new visibilities and channels for participation. Unlike shadow or silent external accounts, the Spotlight Account seeks to illuminate and transform global organisational transparency and disclosure practices by centrally locating and recording comparable, aggregated and independently sought organisational information. 

The paper conceptualises the Spotlight Account through the exploration of a new technological platform, WikiRate. WikiRate is a collective awareness platform for sustainability that organises corporate narratives, disclosures and accountings relating to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other frameworks such as the GRI, into a peer-produced, crowdsourced database. While crowdsourced platforms are not new - think about websites such as TripAdvisor - WikiRate is unique to the CSR field as a free platform that engages stakeholders through information sharing. 

Image: sample of a 'metric' on Wikirate

This conceptual paper highlights a new social accounting framework, empowering anyone to assume the role as a social accountant through participation in the platform and leveraging technology to facilitate transparent and comparative organisational data. In naming this new account, we wanted our readers to think about a spotlight – how it gives centre stage to a space, a number, a metric – each light coming from a member of the crowd to brighten sustainability information for decision-making or, to brighten a lack of corporate sustainability information that may drive better disclosure. 

Spotlight Accounting has the potential to address (some) issues of contemporary CSR practice as it focuses on the process through which accountability information is created. It represents an accounting theory or practice (process, method) and an effective form of social change. We conclude that the exploration of new social accountings can bring about emancipatory change. It opens up the possibilities for social accounting to achieve greater accountability and communication between companies and their stakeholders. We invite accounting scholars to consider the implications of Spotlight Accounting, and consider how advances in technology and increased participation from stakeholders can drive organisational SDGs. 

You can check out WikiRate at: wikirate.org or contact the WikiRate team via info@wikirate.org to discuss setting up your own WikiRate higher education program. 

Editor’s note: As part of the award, Stephanie Perkiss, Bonnie Dean & Belinda Gibbons’ original paper published in Social and Environmental Accountability Journal is available FREE to download via the publishers' website, via this link.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Another call for papers on sustainability in accounting? Please let's help us stop it!

By Diane-Laure Arjaliès, Michelle Rodrigue, and Andrea Romi

Reflections on the call for papers “Accounting for the circular economy” in Accounting Forum

Let’s be clear. Guest editing a special issue is an unspeakable source of pleasure: collaborating with colleagues, helping authors find their voice, consolidating a research project, contemplating the product of our dreams taking shape as days and nights and review letters unfold… and writing an editorial with no worry about whether the latter will be accepted or not feels nice, fun and – let’s admit it – ego flattering. Although we do love the research community and contributing to the latter, one must also admit that we might well spend our time doing something else, like hiking, renovating houses or taking care of our kids. Academics are also human beings, after all.

So, let’s be clear again. If we proposed this call for papers on “Accounting for the Circular Economy” to Accounting Forum, it is because we felt that we desperately needed it. Yes, the research on the circular economy is not new, albeit it might have been approached under a different label (see Milne and Gray, 2013). Yes, Schumacher (1973) is right in his assessment that knowledge and understanding are gradual processes of great subtlety. And yes, there have been other calls in the past on sustainability and accounting that look similar. But still, we have not solved humxnkinds’[1] most significant problems – such as the imminent collapse of ecosystems all over the world, the drama of the microplastic polluting our oceans or the rise of global inequalities, among many others.

How can a call for papers on the circular economy for accounting help? First, because even if in a matter of six decades we have achieved little, it does not mean we should stop trying to influence and stimulate change. Hope is life, and one should fight till the end, if not for us, at least for the next generations. After all, many of us do our best to be compassionate individuals. Second, because there is actually relatively little research on the circular economy in the field of accounting specifically – yet this is maybe a place where accountants could play a key role and where (for once) research could trigger real change. Last, because a special issue can provide a space for scholars to engage in an open dialogue, and hopefully act toward the betterment of all.

In the rest of this blog, we will elaborate on each of these points. We will also bring some evidence on the state of the planet – in case there are still some readers who believe that we are participating in a giant conspiracy attempt – and explain why we should keep fighting and hoping. But as we are also aware that some might need to rush to the classroom, let us summarize what we are looking for in this special issue:
  • Papers that deal with accounting for the circular economy – in a broad sense of the term, on any aspect of it, from any research tradition, with any methodology, and any geography.
  • Interdisciplinary lenses, (critical) essays, reviews, fictions: those lonely children will be appreciated as much as their big siblings.
  • Big names, not such big names, big schools, small schools, doctoral students, stressed tenure-track, relaxed emeritus: everybody is welcome. We strive for inclusion; what matters is the quality of the work.
We will host a workshop at the CSEAR NA Conference in July 2020, during which we will provide developmental reviews, but you are not obliged to attend in order to submit. Deadline is October 31st. Now that you know the practicalities, let’s dig into the research itself.

The United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity just released a report indicating the Earth’s animal population is facing unprecedented mass extinction rates during the next ten years due to the ongoing biodiversity crisis (Yeung, 2020). Biodiversity is fundamental to the survival of humxnity and while there have been environmental effort and attention to this issue over time, the problem is “projected to continue or worsen under business-as-usual scenarios.” The outlook for Earth and its inhabitants looks even more dire when we turn to scientists. A recent article in Science, titled “Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change,” addresses the idea that scientists have been raising a red flag and calling for societal change, reducing our impact on nature, for decades, yet the natural environment continues to decline due mainly to the abundance of humxn consumption (Díaz et al., 2020). They too address that only an immediate transformation of the “global business-as-usual economies and operations will sustain nature as we know it, and us, into the future” (Díaz et al., 2020, p. eaax310).

So, here we are, writing about the same issues of those in the 1960s, warning humxns of their actions and the broken production processes, driven by capitalist economics and the marketization of mass production and consumption. And, in spite of all this research-based activity and evidence, a recent internal United States’ Department of Homeland Security document described five non-violent climate activist who cut through fencing and turned off valves on several pipelines carrying crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries as "extremists" (Federman, 2020). Sharing space in a category to date reserved for the likes of white supremacists and mass killers. So, what then is the answer? Business as usual? Continue to fight a significantly worsening issue with the same tactics and the same research? Haven’t we been taught since childhood that we can overcome such overwhelming tasks? Is this a David and Goliath moment? Can we be the tortoise and still beat the rapidly detrimental environmental hare? Are these stories just that, a method to keep the common humxn reliant on hope even in the direst situations, refocusing them from the key issues at hand, the real culprit – the system?   Or is it sufficient to merely gather in pubs and critically dismantle all attempts toward such positive change? We would argue this is not working given that the amount of degradational change to Earth over the last half-century is almost incommensurable.

Yet, in spite of growing criticisms about inevitable failures on the part of ever-consuming humxns, we refuse to give up. We instead choose to grasp at hope, even if small. There have been true success stories of humxnkind’s impact on the combination of extinction and preservation. In 1918, a supply ship ran aground on Lord Howe Island. While being fixed, rats on board the ship escaped onto the island (Gibbens, 2017). These rats proceeded to feed on a very large insect known as the Dryococelus australis, or more commonly as the Stick Insect or Tree Lobster, driving the insect into extinction (humxn interventive extinction we should add). In the 1960s, rock climbers thought they saw the insect, yet no one was willing to scale the dangerous area at night, when the nocturnal insect could be examined. In 2001, intellectual curiosity and the desire for knowledge changed, and scientists decided to step up to the challenge and took four of those insects from the island to Australia for preservation. In a successful effort, this insect emerged from extinction, but it took intervention and a new perspective for the scientists and a new way of life for the insect, a similar combination we would argue needed to save humxnkind at the moment.

This brings us back to Schumacher and his claim that one of the most fateful errors of his time, and now our time again, is the belief that 'the problem of production' has been solved. Maybe our research needs to focus on “construct[ing] a political system so perfect that human wickedness disappears and everybody behaves well, no matter how much wickedness there may be in [them]” (Schumacher, 1973, p. 4). Maybe we need to shift our focus from influencing corporations to influencing the economic and political systems which support consumption and the dissolution of our natural world. This will not be an accounting solution alone, but an integrated solution, aligned with our research call. Research on the circular economy is not narrowly subject to discussions of production in a corporate and capitalist system, but might also provide empirical suggestions for some of the immediate and extreme change needed in our political and economic systems.

Successful attempts at transitioning to a circular economy model requires a systemic shift in business approaches - one in which value is redefined in order to find worth in elements that were once neglected or discarded; one in which traditional ways of doing business are cast aside and in which networks and partnerships are pivotal (Paquin & Howard-Grenville, 2013).  While this shift has been discussed for some time now, in different disciplines and under different labels, the success of the transition remains ever evasive. This state of stagnation – Failure? - Utmost concern? - led us to develop this call for papers. Whether accounting for the circular economy it is old news to some or a new topic for others is beyond the point. What matters is to try yet again to stimulate change in our destructive economic system. Our call for papers aims to encourage scholars to (re)engage with the circular economy movement and reflect on the role of accounting in this process.

You can read more about our special issue here.

Díaz, S., Settele, J., Brondízio, E. S., Ngo, H. T., Agard, J., Arneth, A., Balvanera, P., Brauman, K. A., Butchart, S. H. M., Chan, K. M. A., Garibaldi, L. A., Ichii, K., Liu, J., Subramanian, S. M., Midgley, G. F., Miloslavich, P., Molnár, Z., Obura, D., Pfaff, A., Polasky, S., Purvis, A., Razzaque, J., Reyers, B.,  Chowdhury, R. R., Shin, Y-J, Visseren-Hamakers, I., Willis, K. J., and Zayas, C. N. 2020. Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science, (6471), eaax 3100.366. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3100.

Federman, A. 2020. Revealed: US listed climate activist group as ‘extremists’ alongside mass killers. The Guardian, January 13, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/13/us-listed-climate-activist-group-extremists

Gibbens, S. 2017. Huge 'Tree Lobster' not extinct after all. National Geographic, October 9, 2017 Accessible at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/10/lord-howe-island-stick-insect-dna-spd/#close

Milne, M. J., & Gray, R. (2013). W(h)ither Ecology? The Triple Bottom Line, the Global Reporting Initiative, and Corporate Sustainability Reporting. Journal of Business Ethics, 118(1), 13-29.

Paquin, R. L., & Howard-Grenville, J. (2013). Blind Dates and Arranged Marriages: Longitudinal Processes of Network Orchestration. Organization Studies, 34(11), 1623–1653.

Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

Yeung, J. 2020. “We have 10 years to save Earth's biodiversity as mass extinction caused by humans takes hold, UN warns”. CNN.com, January 20, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/14/world/un-biodiversity-draft-plan-intl-hnk-scli-scn/index.html

Editor's note: this blog article was originally published on the EAA-ARC blog on 24 January 2020, and is republished here with permission.

[1] We rely on the alternative spelling of human (i.e., humxn) as a gender-inclusive expression repudiating the traditions that define all individuals by a reference to a male norm.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Developing Accountants for more Creative Futures

Alessandro Ghio (Monash University)
Thomas Kern (The Accountability Institute)
Nick McGuigan (Monash University | The Accountability Institute)

How can we foster a socially progressive accounting that is based on human-centered design? Can we radically and openly discard the ‘Accounting as Art or Science’ debate, and transition towards explicitly addressing accounting as a social construct? A social construct that we feel needs reorganising, reinterpreting, reworking and repackaging for a dramatically changing world.

We have been thinking about the future of the world, of human organising and of doing business. We have been thinking a lot about governance and accountability of a changing world. How best to facilitate the future learning of accounting? What accounting really means in such social contexts? We began to question current economic principles, systems and the assumptions underpinning them. Is up the only way? Is growth the only measure of success? How is accounting and its language entangled up in all this? These conversations led to the laying of an alternative path, reinvigorating accounting education, by adopting a more humanistic approach to accounting.

The course ‘Global Issues in Accounting’ was thus designed and created as a type of experiment exploring the intersections of accounting, art, society and futures, integrating within a cohesive ecological narrative.  This undergraduate course taught in the last year of studies at Monash University in Melbourne (Australia) envisions a space for students to explore their lived experience, contextualise this and create their own unique understanding of accounting. Educators and students work collaboratively and creatively to interrogate accounting frameworks, accountability and conscious leadership. Students do this across three different contexts, the individual, the profession, and society. This has enabled them to see more than accounting’s technical aspects, and to explore how accounting fits into the world around them.

We based our course design on the principles of Constructivist Developmental Pedagogy developed by Marcia Baxter-Magolda at the University of Ohio. This approach is based on three decades of empirical work investigating epistemological understanding of her students. Constructivist Developmental Pedagogy promotes an active involvement in the process of sensemaking and knowledge creation. Baxter-Magolda believes that the three elements necessary for effective learning are:
  1. A validation of students as knowers, acknowledging students have prior understandings and experience;
  2. Learning needs to be situated within the lived experience of students;
  3. Learning is seen as a mutual construction of meaning between students and educators.
So in actively thinking and designing our learning experiences for students the teaching team constantly hold these principles in mind and actively search for engaging ways in which to explore material in this way jointly with our students.

In this context, we draw on humanities and the natural sciences to provoke and induce student imagination and to continuously challenge the role of accounting in society.

We draw on permaculture[1] design principles to investigate a systems approach to accounting. Students have the opportunity to explore a permaculture garden, where they are introduced to the permaculture ethics and design principles. Students explore a natural ecosystem through a permaculture lens, and subsequently contrast this against the human design system of accounting and its business context. In doing so, they start to see how such design principles could inform the organising of business and new forms of governance.

Figure 1. Permaculture garden site visit and discussion

To further prepare students for a complex and changing professional environment, we use context-specific case-study design, where students explore the role of accounting within the Australian refugee crisis as a part of their in-semester assessment. Students analyse and evaluate the financial statements of BroadSpectrum (the organisation responsible for Australia’s offshore detention centres). Students then view ‘Chasing Asylum’, a documentary exposing Australia’s offshore detention policies. This is instrumental to reflect on what they have seen and compare this to their financial analysis. They then bring together their learning across both activities, with their exploration of theoretical accounting viewpoints discussed in seminars, to critically question whether - “current business is immoral?” This encourages our students to think widely about the context in which accounting operates, where students see heightened relevance in accounting assessments.

Further provocation towards ethical reasoning and social, environmental impacts, is achieved through the use of a creative design method of ‘futuring’. Developed and actively trialled by Johan Galtung in the context of peace development, this creative design approach draws heavily on constructivist principles to enact positive ways of solving complex problems. Being placed in the year 2039 our students are asked to reflect back on their relationship to accounting in 2019, students then brainstorm key structural and behavioural forces of change that are and will continue to affect society in the future. By choosing two of these forces of change they then create a quadrant which affords them the opportunity to populate four different accounting futures. These in turn are evaluated by students and presented amongst their peers. Students leave the room empowered and more prepared for an undetermined future:
“During the discussion, we formed constructive arguments that brought a different understanding to what Accounting is and will be in the future. I felt that we were encouraged to think out the box and provide our own opinions towards the task. Very rarely are we required to express our thoughts in a more mature manner. This unit has enabled me to think out of the box, a very important element.” 
Figure 2. Students collaborating to create unboxing videos

Finally, we make use of artistic ways of thinking and doing to develop an activity that asks students to discuss the idea of becoming a professional. To stimulate students’ imagination, we employ the use of unboxing videos, finding recent popularity on YouTube. Unboxing videos are advertisements of new products where individuals unbox new products they receive, or they are used by celebrities to sponsor products. Students are usually familiar with such videos and associate them with today’s consumerism. We ask students to create their own type of unboxing video that addresses the question ‘What role should accountants have in today’s society?’ We provide various material, e.g. play-doh, children’s toys, chalk, coloured paper to invite students to think about the accounting profession with objects not usually associated with accounting. In their one-minute video, students express their creativity. Examples of videos developed include future-oriented accountants that make use of new forms of technology, accountants problematising the integration of non-financial matters, and accountants as part of wider eco-systems. We watch the videos together so students can explore their peers’ views of the accountants’ role in society and stimulate follow-up debate and discussion. 

Figure 3. Futuring seminars, depicting student engagement and future mapping 

‘Global Issues in Accounting’ was awarded a 2019 Ideas worth Teaching Award by The Aspen Institute in New York. This award honours educators and universities which are redefining business education by providing learning experiences that equip managers of tomorrow with the context, skills and decision-making capabilities needed to lead in an increasingly complex business environment.

By creating transformative learning experiences that ask students to transform their own world, this course provides the space for students to grow as professionals, active members of society. Students actively position accounting within its broader social context, develop skills associated with holistic and integrated thinking, complex decision-making, creative brainstorming and sensemaking required to engage in a complex and rapidly changing profession and society.

[1] Permaculture, standing for permanent agriculture, was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia during the 1970s. Permaculture is a human design system derived from indigenous community practices from around the world and comprises of 3 ethics and 12 design principles. These can in turn be used by humans to design self-sustaining ways of living.