FRIDAY 23 AUG 2019 8:58 AM


This year's Evolution of the Annual Report conference takes place in London on 13 September. Gather is sponsoring the session on changes in corporate reporting

For years, stakeholders have been saying the modern annual report is broken; it’s quickly out of date, too long and contains information that no one cares about. But little has changed. However, constant scrutiny is the new normal and there is increasing pressure on companies to explain their behaviours and performance. I sense that we are on the brink of a period of significant transformation.

The 2019-2020 reporting season will see hundreds of annual reports prepared under the new governance and reporting regime; a regime intended to create a step-change in corporate behaviour. Disappointingly, I have encountered far too many businesses retrofitting their governance practices around what needs to be reported, rather than just doing what is right in the first place. This does not bode well for the creation of long-term, sustainable businesses, or a thriving and healthy economy. It will be interesting to see if boards rise to the new challenge. Purpose, values, culture, stakeholder engagement and sustainability are not buzz words that just need to be reported on every year; these should be fundamental building blocks at the heart of every successful business.

That said, changing regulation is only one of many challenges. It doesn’t require a crystal ball to spot social activism and technology bobbing ominously on the horizon. Who could have predicted that a 60-minute episode of Blue Planet II that aired only 18 months ago would have sparked the current consumer war against single-use plastics? And the potential impact of technology is impossible to predict. I believe it is the alignment of the end of our love affair with plastics and the beginnings of our relationship with technology that will truly shape the corporate world of the future.

What does the future look like with the incoming generation of employees, executives, analysts and investors being ‘woke,’ digital natives?

We are already starting to see the beginnings of change. ‘ESG analyst’ is now a career option with the CFA Institute launching its new ESG investing qualification in May. Artificial intelligence is starting to have real world applications. JP Morgan recently announced a five-year contract with Persado to use its AI to write marketing copy; an experiment that resulted in real tangible benefits hitting JP Morgan’s top line. I’ve recently been given a demonstration of the Sentieo financial research platform which uses AI to perform complex sentiment analysis on all publicly filed corporate documents. It was mind boggling watching a search for the word ‘sustainability’ reel out a list of results identifying where forward-looking syntaxes such as ‘expect’ and ‘going to be’ have been used. It appears that what was once only possible in movies, is now becoming reality. Project forward five years, will we see AI-generated real-time digital reporting with standardised ESG data?

And what about governance? In a world where corporate reputations are more fragile than ever, it is clear that excellence in governance has a huge part to play. Arguably a lot of the failings are down to poor human judgement and behaviours in the boardroom and the link between poor governance and reputation cannot be ignored; Sports Direct is a case in point. Is it too much of a stretch to believe that AI could make better decisions in the boardroom than a human?

What is certain is that change is coming; not because of changing regulation, but because of changing societal expectations and technology.

Maybe on reflection this article would have been more appropriately entitled ‘I’ll be back…’

Mei Ashelford is director of reporting intelligence at Gather

Book your places at the Evolution of the Annual Report now