Back To The Classroom: A Professor’s Experience

As a professor at a private regional university in one of America’s largest cities, I found last week’s “back to the classroom” experience to be a surreal one.

I spoke for 75 consecutive minutes through a face mask. I fidgeted while anchored to the podium, unable to move around the room while remaining within range of a video camera. And I watched with trepidation while students moved within six feet of friends, tugged down their masks to speak, and generally struggled to respect the restrictions of social distancing standards.

How can any one teach under such circumstances? Indeed, how can any teacher meet the semester’s learning objectives when students are permitted to “elect the remote learning option,” thereby eliminating the classroom entirely and opting to “attend” sessions by watching the video recordings of the live lectures?

Thus far, I only have one week of teaching under my belt. Nevertheless, I am already adapting to new realities by emphasizing certain principles:

1. EMPATHY. In unfamiliar and unprecedented circumstances, I find that I can only anticipate the needs of students by making a conscious effort to “stand in their shoes” and “see through their eyes” to identify their obstacles to learning. By making such an effort, I can recognize difficulties and develop solutions that may not have occurred to me otherwise.

For instance, consider an ostensibly inconsequential student presentation assignment. For students who are learning remotely, the physical classroom must be replaced by some type of electronic communication platform.

At first blush, a video platform such as Zoom or Skype may appear to offer an effective solution. But what if I view this assignment through the eyes of a disadvantaged student? Does that student possess a broadband internet connection at home? In more extreme circumstances, does the student live in a home at all? And in a visually “presentable” one at that?

There are various solutions to deal with this problem, though (regrettably) none is ideal. Nevertheless, by applying a sense of empathy, I may be more likely to identify the challenges that students may confront during a simple presentation activity.

2. FLIPPING THE CLASSROOM. Traditionally structured courses require students to listen to lectures and discuss cases in live classroom environments, and then to go home and apply their knowledge by completing homework assignments. For many years, though, some teachers have “flipped the classroom” by instructing students to watch video lectures at home. Then students are expected to complete their application activities in the classroom, guided by teachers who serve as coaches and mentors instead of as lecturers.

To be sure, this is not a new pedagogical strategy. However, when many students must “attend” lectures through videos because personal circumstances prevent them from traveling to their classrooms, “flipping the classroom” may evolve from an optional strategy to a mandatory imperative. Under such circumstances, teachers can embrace the “flipping” model and communicate with these remote students electronically, serving as coaches and mentors in an empathetic manner.

3. PULL COMMUNICATION. Under normal circumstances, teachers communicate with students by making verbal announcements in classrooms and video chat rooms, and by posting messages via email, blogs, and electronic announcement boards. Students then reply by verbal conversations and email transmissions.

Under pandemic conditions, teachers can continue to communicate by utilizing these methods. But imagine the discomfort that students may experience while telling teachers “I have Covid” in open Zoom chat rooms, or while reporting on students who attend off-campus “no masks allowed” parties via email messages.

New communication methods may be needed to “pull” such information from students by removing the behavioral obstacles that impede such conversations. Anonymous message systems and private reporting mechanisms may conflict with recent trends towards open and transparent group communication methods, but they may enable more effective interactions during the pandemic era.

 

Technology clearly plays a key role in each of these three circumstances. However, the solution in each circumstance is not technology itself. Rather, the “Path Forward” may involve the establishment of a more durable and reliable human connection between the professors and the students whom they serve.

Integrated Reporting and Risk: A Helix and a Spring

Note: This post has also appeared on the blogs of the Public Interest Section of the American Accounting Association and the Sustainability Investment Leadership Council. I encourage you to use these links to peruse these outstanding online publications.

Three years ago, COSO updated its Integrated Framework for Enterprise Risk Management (ERM). It was a noteworthy event in the business community, given that the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) is the leading authority that promulgates guidance about internal control and enterprise risk management systems.

Prior to this update, organizations utilized a cubic ERM framework that COSO first promulgated in 2004, following a scandal plagued era that featured the collapses of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom. The original cubic ERM model emphasized the practices of event identification, risk assessment, control practices, and response capabilities.

After years of widespread use, the 2004 COSO Cube became synonymous with the practice of ERM. In its 2017 update, though, COSO presented a new “Focused Framework” with five components: (a) Governance and Culture, (b) Strategy and Objective Setting, (c) Performance, (d) Review and Revision, and (e) Information, Communication, and Reporting. To emphasize the “interrelated” nature of these five components, COSO designed a visual framework that weaves the five together in the form of a multi-colored Helix.

The designers of the Integrated Reporting <IR> Framework may have taken this Helix into account when they defined their own framework development goals earlier this year. Since 2013, issuers of integrated reports have used the International Integrated Reporting Council’s (IIRC’s) colorful Six Capitals model to structure their presentations. Some even referred to the framework as the Octopus Model, given its vaguely mollusk-like shape.

Like COSO, the IIRC felt the need to update this original framework. Its design project remains in progress, but the organization recently issued a model entitled “From String to Spring” that features an extension of the Six Capitals model.

Each of the six capitals of the <IR> Framework, like each of the five components of the ERM framework, is represented by a colorful String. Whereas the five “interrelated” Strings of the ERM framework are woven into a colorful Helix, the six “integrated” Strings of the <IR> Framework are woven into a colorful Spring.

Given the obvious similarities between the Helix and the Spring, it is hard to believe that the two design teams were oblivious to each other’s efforts to update their original Frameworks. Indeed, by presenting such similar models, COSO and the IIRC remind us of the significant “interrelationships” and “integrations” that link the functions of enterprise risk management and integrated reporting.

The Historical (And Yet Contemporary) Importance of Behavioral Accounting

Note: This post has also appeared on the blogs of Econvue, the Public Interest Section of the American Accounting Association, and the Sustainability Investment Leadership Council. I encourage you to use these links to peruse these outstanding online publications.

The field of behavioral finance studies the behavior of the investment markets. Similarly, the field of behavioral economics studies the behavior of the global economy and the numerous national, regional, and local economies.

But what of the field of behavioral accounting? How does it resemble the fields of behavioral finance and economics? And how does it differ?

Behavioral accountants, like their colleagues in the other financial professions, focus on elements of human characteristics that can be identified in aggregate data sets. They recognize that organizations, like markets and societies, are composed of individuals who make personal decisions in often-predictable ways. Thus, because behavioral researchers can understand and predict individual decisions in various situations, they are also able to understand and predict the impact of aggregate decisions.

Accountants, though, specialize in the development of organizational reports that describe the conditions of organizations. Internal and external users of their reports rely on them to make important decisions that impact the well-being of those organizations. Thus, at times, accountants feel inherent tensions between the goals of “measuring and reporting data accurately and objectively” versus “measuring and reporting data that persuades the user to make decisions that help the organization.”

Individuals study to become public accountants to learn how to implement measurement and assurance procedures in support of the first goal. Separately, they study to become behavioral accountants to learn how to support the second goal. These goals overlap, but they are not mutually exclusive. In certain situations, they are perfectly aligned. In other situations, though, they have little in common, and they may even conflict.

A Controversial Example of Behavioral Accounting

A prime example of controversial behavioral accounting is commonly known as “greenwashing” in sustainability circles. Organizations cherry-pick data that appear to portray them as responsible guardians of the environment, and then present that data to persuade readers that they are responsible stewards of the natural world.

Volkswagen’s notorious collection of falsified emissions testing data is an obvious and egregious illustration of greenwashing behavior. Other illustrations are more subtle in nature, generating healthy debates over whether the content is misleading at all.

Consider, for instance, the pledge that was made by E. Neville Isdell, Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. In 2007, he declared that “Our goal is to replace every drop of water we use in our beverages and their production.

On the one hand, the firm produced data that indicated the successful achievement of that goal. But on the other hand, investigative reporters have noted that “… ‘every drop’ includes only what goes into the bottle. The company does not count water in its supply chain — including the water-guzzling sugar crop — in its ‘every drop’ math.

Indeed, a public accountant may be able to provide assurance that the “drop for drop” phrase is (technically speaking) an accurate description of Coca-Cola’s water utilization patterns. But a behavioral accountant may protest that the vaguely defined phrase invites selective interpretation.

A Universally Admired Example of Behavioral Accounting

Ben & Jerry’s provides a contrasting illustration to the controversial food and beverage example of Coca-Cola’s environmental accounting practices. The ice cream manufacturer is often credited with producing the world’s first Corporate Stakeholder report (i.e. Integrated Report) more than two decades ago.

Using an internally developed proprietary format that the firm called Social & Environmental Assessment Reports (SEARs), Ben & Jerry’s published sustainability data on its web site for many years until concluding the practice in 2018. The reports employed colorful graphic imagery to express its core values, its focus on its social mission, its multiple year planning processes, its goal setting practices, and its outcomes. It also hired an independent public accounting firm to prepare annual independent review reports on the information.

The playful graphics, the earnest social messaging, and the metrics all served to reinforce the impression of Ben & Jerry’s as a socially conscious firm that made business decisions in support of the public interest. The behavioral impressions that were produced by the SEAR Reports undoubtedly supported the decision by Unilever to purchase the firm on friendly terms.

From The Past To The Future

Why did Abraham Lincoln begin his 1863 Gettysburg Address by noting an event that occurred “four score and seven years ago,” instead of simply beginning with the phrase “in 1776”? He must have known that his audience would have leaned into the arithmetic calisthenics of computing the year, thereby placing them in an appropriate frame of mind to focus on his intellectual argument about the war’s threat to democracy.

And why did he end his Address by vowing to protect the “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? Why didn’t he simply vow to protect “democracy”? Once again, he must have anticipated that the repetitive rhythmic triadic cadence would be more memorable to his audience. It’s also why Martin Luther King repeated “I Have A Dream” nine times in his immortal address, and “Free At Last” three times at the very end of the speech.

Lincoln and King both knew that the levels of the persuasiveness of the information that they conveyed to their audiences were just as important as the objective validity of their logical arguments. Such knowledge continually inspires today’s behavioral accountants to redefine traditional profitability measurements into more esoteric metrics like Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA) and Adjusted Consolidated Segment Operating Income (ACSOI).

From Abraham Lincoln to the Chief Financial Officer of Groupon, the principles of behavioral accounting have been widely used to influence the decisions of stakeholders. Indeed, it is not sufficient for an accountant to simply “get the numbers right.” It is also important for an accountant to “persuade the user of the numbers to behave in a desirable manner.”

Once Again, A Lost Generation

Precisely one century ago, Ernest Hemingway was living in Chicago and attempting to readjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of service as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army in World War I. F Scott Fitzgerald was drinking excessively and wooing his future wife Zelda while attempting to transition from an unsuccessful career in advertising to a lucrative one in writing novels and short stories. And the United States, as a nation, was struggling to recover from its loss of human life during the Spanish Flu pandemic, its failure to permanently “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I, and its inability to prevent the economic collapse of the 1920 Depression.

Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s subsequent tales illustrated the plight of The Lost Generation, the demographic cohort that came of age at a time when national leaders and the general public were asking serious questions about the sustainability of American society and its capitalist economy. Although the 1920s are now remembered as a time of prosperity, the decade also represented a time of escalating income inequality, debt-fueled business transactions, racial and religious bigotry, and political turmoil.

Today, much praise is bestowed on America’s Greatest Generation, the demographic group that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Much less attention is paid to the Lost Generation, though, the preceding generation that (according to Hemingway) believed that “if you have a success you have it for the wrong reasons. If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work.”

What caused such a pessimistic, fatalistic, and almost nihilistic perception of American business and society to be adopted by an entire generation? It could not have been a mere single catastrophic event; after all, many American generations experience such events. Perhaps, instead, it was the impact of a wide variety of catastrophic events that generated such cynicism, catastrophes that affected many different types of institutions that supported American society.

And what of today’s youthful generation? What of Gen Z, the demographic cohort that was born after 1996 and is now entering the work force? Their collective memories encompass the national security failure of 9/11, the military quagmire of the Middle Eastern wars, the economic collapse of the Great Recession, the radicalization of contemporary political movements, and the social and medical convulsions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, some citizens are calling for dramatic new investments in national programs, arguing that the failure to make such investments will result in severe economic losses. Others reply that massive increases in federal debt will be required to finance such investments, and that excessive spending will impose even more severe economic losses in the long term.

But neither side is factoring the risk of the emergence of a new Lost Generation into its Return On Investment analyses. If we believe that the potential cost of a climate collapse must be factored into analyses of proposed environmental sustainability investments, perhaps we should likewise conclude that the potential cost of producing another Lost Generation must be factored into analyses of proposed social sustainability investments.

After all, a century ago, the Spanish Flu pandemic helped to produce a group of “Lost” authors who shaped the generation that stumbled into the Great Depression. What will the Coronavirus pandemic do today?

Accounting for Coronavirus Risk

As Queen Elizabeth makes her emergency address to the British people from her safe zone in Windsor Castle, and as the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warns the American people of an impending “Pearl Harbor Moment,” is it reasonable to ask why governments and businesses were caught blindsided by the coronavirus catastrophe?

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect foresight in the face of such a menace. But why weren’t health care providers and other organizations prepared to respond promptly? Why the shortages of such basic items as face masks and nasal swabs? Where was the contingency plan to increase production of such essentials at a time of dire need?

If we review the reporting standards of the Global Reporting Institute (GRI), we can find disclosure requirements that address these readiness considerations. GRI Standard 204 on Procurement Practices, for instance, states that:

When reporting its management approach for procurement practices, the reporting organization can … describe actions taken to identify and adjust the organization’s procurement practices that cause or contribute to negative impacts in the supply chain … (these) can include stability or length of relationships with suppliers, lead times, ordering and payment routines, purchasing prices, changing or cancelling orders.”

Consider the many health care providers that rely on unstable Asian suppliers to provide face masks under terms that permit long lead times, uncertain ordering routines, and the imposition of extreme price increases when products are scarce. If they are required to disclose these procurement relationships under GRI Standard 204, we would be aware of the resulting social risk.

Likewise, GRI Standard 403 on Occupational Health and Safety states that:

The reporting organization shall report … whether the (occupational health and safety management) system has been implemented based on recognized risk management and/or management system standards / guidelines and, if so, a list of the standard guidelines.”

Consider the employees of our food and delivery companies who are now protesting that their employers are not providing satisfactory protections against the coronavirus. If the employers are required to disclose the standards and systems that they utilize to keep their employees healthy and safe, we would be aware of the extent of their preparedness (or lack thereof) in the face of pandemic threat.

There are other GRI Standards that come close to addressing pandemic concerns, but that fall just short of the mark. GRI Standard 201 on Economic Performance, for instance, states that:

The reporting organization shall report … risks and opportunities posed by climate change that have the potential to generate substantive changes in operations, revenue, or expenditure, including a description of the risk … a description of the impact associated with the risk … the financial implications of the risk … the methods used to manage the risk … (and) the costs of actions taken to manage the risk.”

Although Standard 201 refers to climate change, it would represent an ideal disclosure requirement for pandemic preparedness if the GRI simply adds the words “and pandemics” to “climate change.”

It may be comforting to know that disclosure defining entities like the GRI have issued standards that address our readiness to fight the current pandemic. But we cannot reap the benefits of these disclosure requirements if organizations simply ignore their reporting responsibilities.

Embracing This Milestone 500th Blog Post As An Opportunity For Transformation

Do you recall the zeitgeist of our society in January 2009? The global economy was collapsing, a Second Great Depression was threatening, and the first African American President in the history of the United States swept into office on the rhythms of Yes We Can.

At that moment, I realized that a business educator and management consultant with complementary Academic Qualifications (AQ) and Professional Qualifications (PQ) might be able to find something interesting to editorialize about on a weekly basis. And thus I launched the blog AQPQ.org.

Now, roughly 500 weeks later, I’ve achieved this 500th milestone post. How am I celebrating?

By deciding that it’s time for transformation.

Why? Because the world itself has been transformed during the past decade. A global economy in utter ruin in 2009 is, by and large, in fairly robust shape today.

But what of the health of our society and natural environment? Sadly, they appear to be evolving in the opposite direction.

In the meantime, the structure of the internet has been transformed too. Consider, for instance, the world’s most popular web site platform WordPress. When I launched AQPQ in 2009, I selected it because of its singular focus on blog hosting.

But today, WordPress’ home page invites potential customers to “Build your beautiful site today. Everything you need for a website that works for you.” It barely mentions the word “blog.”

So I’ve decided to embrace this 500th post as an opportunity for transformation. I will conclude my utilization of the blog format to express my editorial views, and will shift my commentary to alternative publishing venues.

To be sure, I’ll continue to utilize this web site to describe my professional activities. Nevertheless, I’m ready to embrace an indisputable truth: a structure that provided a strong foundation for my editorial expression a decade ago may no longer represent an ideal venue for me today.

500 iterations of any endeavor is a good run. After 500 blog posts across a decade of global transformation, it’s the right time to embrace the future.

What Would Thomas Edison Say About GE’s Expulsion From The Dow?

In 1896, Dow Jones created an Industrial Average of the equity values of twelve corporations that dominated the American stock market. Thomas Edison’s company General Electric was one of those twelve firms.

The other eleven corporations are long gone from the Industrial Average. Some continue to operate as smaller entities. Others merged into larger firms. And others dissolved or were broken up by court order.

Only General Electric remained in the Industrial Average until, last week, S&P Dow Jones Indices decided to expel it. Apparently, GE can no longer be characterized as a dominant American corporation.

So what would Edison, the American entrepreneurial icon who founded GE, say about this downgrade? Ironically, he’d probably wonder how his firm managed to remain in the Industrial Average until now.

That’s because GE was founded by Edison by 1890 to serve as a holding company for a variety of his electricity-related business interests. A hodgepodge of lamps, motors, and other items were tossed together under the General Electric brand name.

Had Edison been alive today, he likely would’ve explained that he always expected his application product businesses to wax and wane over time. He’d then return to his New Jersey laboratory and roll up his sleeves, determined to invent the next generation of applications.

Edison understood that the capitalist process of destruction and innovation would ensure that no application product would be popular forever. He undoubtedly realized that, just as his electric lamps and motors replaced predecessor products that ran on kerosene and steam, his own inventions would eventually yield to more efficient and effective products.

In other words, Edison would’ve likely put aside the existing application products of General Electric, and would’ve turned his attention to the solar panels and wind turbines of the future. And, while doing so, he would’ve relished the opportunity to build a better company than today’s GE.

Why You Should Care About Your Mobile Phone’s Location Tracker

Are you reading this blog post on your mobile telephone? If you’re doing so, you can now feel a little more secure about carrying it with you when you leave your home.

Why? Because the four major cell phone networks have decided to stop selling customer location data to third parties. They made this choice in response to the inappropriate corporate behavior of LocationSmart, a data aggregator.

How did LocationSmart mishandle location data? Unfortunately, the four carriers didn’t release detailed information regarding its actions. Nevertheless, LocationSmart’s web site highlights its sale of geofencing services.

A geofence is a virtual sensory field that surrounds a geographic location. When someone approaches the field, his mobile phone “pings” its location to the cellular network without notifying its owner. The data can be instantly communicated to a business that occupies the location, or packaged and then sold to third parties.

A relatively benign service might involve the text messaging of a price discount offer to a mobile phone in order to entice its owner to enter a store within the geofence. A potentially malignant service, though, might involve the compilation and sale of detailed personal profiles of cell phone owners.

The malignancy of a profiling service need not be intentional on the part of the data aggregator. Consider, for instance, the plight of an individual who frequently visits a grocer or restaurant that has recently opened in a building that also houses a cigar shop. A health insurer that purchases the data may (erroneously) flag the individual as a cigar smoker. The individual may never become aware of the sale of his location data, or of his health insurance classification.

The recent decision of the four cell phone networks removes one path to such an outcome. But if individuals continue to download and install applications without reading the fine print in their Terms and Conditions, they may provide data aggregators with new paths to the same undesirable outcome.

Can We Rely On Coca-Cola’s Water Use Disclosures?

Have you read the recent investigative news story regarding Coca-Cola’s water use? Apparently, the firm has been reporting data in an incomplete (and potentially misleading) manner.

The news story focused on the company’s claim that “For every drop (of water) we use, we give one back.” Why the concern? Because, even though clean water has become a scarce and precious resource around the world, Coca-Cola utilizes massive amounts of the liquid to produce its eponymous product.

The company claims that its water conservation efforts fully replace the volume of liquid that it draws out of the natural environment. But the investigative reporter revealed that the company “… does not count water in its supply chain — including the water-guzzling sugar crop — in its ‘every drop’ math.”

The reporter also noted that a company researcher once revealed that he was pressured to “ … adopt a ‘net green’ accounting method that would have lowered the water footprint of its agricultural supply chain.”

Huh? A “net green” accounting method? Any Certified Public Accountant or Chartered Accountant can confirm that no such method is defined by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or International Accounting Standards. Coca-Cola concocted it to serve its needs.

Interestingly, the investigative reporter failed to note that Coca-Cola arranges for the Big Four global accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP (EY) to attest to the accuracy of its Water Replenish and Water Use Ratio metrics. The statistic is one of seven sustainability measurements that are assessed by the external accountants.

Sadly, industry critics will likely refer to this situation as an illustration that “corporate sustainability reporting (is) a great waste of time.” But even though it’s possible to regard the Coca-Cola brouhaha as an exemplar of misleading reporting practices, it’s important to keep in mind that — as a result of the company’s disclosures — its water use practices can now be scrutinized by external parties who care deeply about the environment.

Forget Pitching, Hitting, and Fielding! The New York Mets’ Most Glaring Area Of Weakness May Be Statistics

It’s difficult to believe that Major League Baseball’s New York Mets won 11 of their first 12 games this season. Earlier today, the Chicago Cubs completed a four game sweep of the club, continuing a stretch in which the Mets have lost 29 of 45 games.

During this woeful period, fans have witnessed displays of poor pitching, hitting, and fielding skills. And to make matters worse, earlier this week, they witnessed a managerial display of poor statistical skills.

At a critical moment in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Mets Manager Mickey Callaway removed an effective pitcher and replaced him with an ineffective one. The change enabled the Brewers to score four runs and convert a two run New York lead into a two run Milwaukee surplus.

So why did Callaway bring in Jerry Blevins to replace Robert Gsellman? Given that Blevins has struggled all season, while Gsellman has delivered periods of clutch pitching? Callaway explained:

The seven times [the Brewers batter] faced Gsellman he got three hits. He’s never gotten a hit (0-for-2 with a walk) off Blevins. The overall numbers suggest Blevins has a much greater chance to get the hitter out and you have to go with those. It is part of managing the game today.

At first glance, it does seem reasonable to bring in a pitcher who has experienced success against a batter. But “0 for 2 with a walk” means that the pitcher had only faced the batter three times in his entire career!

That isn’t even close to a statistically meaningful number of past attempts. Callaway himself acknowledged the “small sample size” that he relied upon to make his decision.

In all fairness, there is no single numerical minimum of observations that must be considered when making a statistically valid decision. The minimum number varies by one’s willingness, in any particular situation, to tolerate risk and uncertainty.

And yet no mathematician would agree that a counter-intuitive baseball decision could be made on the basis of three prior outcomes. Thus, the Mets can now add Statistical Analysis to their List of Necessary Improvements.