Are governors facing information overload?

Four clear baubles containing who where when how why

Governors must have confidence in the information that they are being given. They also need it to be clear, concise and timely information upon which they can rely. Simon Perks asks how that can be achieved.

The Advance HE project, integrated thinking and reporting (IT&R) can help governors and their institutions to focus on material issues and take a holistic approach to strategic governance. Ten HEIs are participating in a pilot project to examine how universities can better report on how they create value, particularly to critical stakeholders such as governors and students.

The higher education sector and the responsibilities of individual institutions are becoming ever more complex. Institutions are actively seeking approaches to deal with the range of issues and challenges with which governing bodies are required to concern themselves, and scrutiny of what institutions do and how they do it has risen swiftly to the top of the political and media agenda. Consequently, the need for governors to obtain reliable assurance on their institutions’ activities has never before been so great.

Whilst a holistic approach to stakeholder engagement is part of the integrated thinking and reporting concept, the need for governors to engage in the process of short, medium and long term value creation and to be part of the communication process to demonstrate that value is critical. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

The drive for greater and better information, and assurance took centre stage in the recent workshop for the IT&R project and the needs of governors featured strongly.

“Governors need to know what their institution is doing”, explained Simon Taylor, director of financial services at Sheffield Hallam University and a governor of Barnsley College.

“They need to know the risks that it is facing. And they need clear assurance around the management of risk, exposure to fraud and other challenges”.

As the challenges faced by institutions and the assurances required by governors grow, so too do the number and length of reports that governors are expected to read. Participants in the IT&R project agreed, that can make it difficult for governors to stay on top of the information provided to them. Furthermore, reports to governors on specific issues do not always set out the bigger picture. And in their drive to provide full and complete information, such reports may not highlight adequately the issues that are of most concern to the governing body.

We need a more holistic way of thinking about our institutions’ activities and of reporting to governors. And integrated thinking and reporting provides a way of doing just that.

The project draws on the principles and practice of the international Integrated Reporting (IIRC) framework, which is designed to allow organisations across all sectors to communicate more clearly how they create value in the short, medium and long term. An integrated report should be concise yet reliable, complete yet focused on material issues. Ideal, then, for governors.

The benefits to governors of such an approach to reporting are clear. It provides a complete and inclusive insight into the institution and its activities. It focuses on how the institution creates value for its students, staff, funders and society. It considers how well the institution uses the financial and other resources available to it. And it provides information on the institution’s failures as well as its successes. In short, it goes behind the facts and the figures to really tell the institution’s story.

Participants agree though, that an integrated approach to reporting to governors can only work if governors themselves are engaged actively in developing the reporting framework. What issues are most important to them? What information do they want? How frequently do they need it? How would they like to see it presented? What other assurances do they require?

By creating clear, concise and insightful reports that get quickly to the heart of the issues facing institutions, these institutions can help governors to focus on what is important. To see the bigger picture.To gain insight into what the institution is doing and the challenges that it might face. That is what integrated thinking and reporting is all about. And that, surely, is what being a governor is all about, too.

Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting. Click here to find out more about the IT&R project, or come to our national event on 11 September. Browse our extensive resources for governors and sign up to our governance new alert service.