The Seven Blind Men and the Annual Report

The story of the seven blind men goes like this. Once upon a time, a group of visually-impaired gentlemen realised, after much consternation, that they had no inkling of what an elephant looked like. After much debating, they agreed to individually set off, find an elephant, feel it by touch, and to come back and (annual) report on their results.

And so they set off. And when they came back, and eagerly started shouting their findings, their consternation only doubled! For each man, had, alas, only managed to feel part of the majestic creature they had found (which is understandable, since most elephants do not come in an easy-feel compact size). And so they fought and fought over whether; amongst all, an elephant could be a whip (tail), a boulder (head), a dustbin lid (ear), an umbrella stand (leg), a curved sword (tusk), a furry sack of potatoes (belly), or their dead uncle’s feather boa (trunk).

The moral behind this amusing anecdote is that every man was right in his own way. However, if they had wished to have glimpsed the full picture, they would have done better to have combined their knowledge.

We can now extend an elephant’s trunk from this little tale to our humble annual report. It is no wonder that an annual report is positioned at the ungainly crossroads, or crossfires even, of regulatory disclosure, stakeholder interest, sustainable reporting, engaging storytelling and attractive design. Add into this mix a whole bunch of extraneous factors such as resources and costs, and the whole paradigm of reporting can well start to resemble the act of fumbling in the dark for a piece of the elephant.

The solution to this dilemma lies of course, in paying mindful attention to the many demands that are imposed on and imposed by an annual report.

Regulatory disclosures are mandatory compliance requirements that cannot be compromised. To further complicate matters companies have to also adhere to numerous accounting standards that are becoming increasingly stringent. These standards on which financial statements are prepared are rampant with jargon and sadly only understood by a few.

Sustainable reporting requires the careful evaluation of the diverse impacts that an enterprise may have on the economy, society and environment. By carefully analysing the risks that a business’s operations may pose, an organisation can successfully mitigate such issues to assure long-term value creation.

Similarly, the varying stakeholders of a company often have diverse and sometimes diverging interests. It might be difficult to address all of these in one concise report. In this case, it may be wise to consider multiple channels of presenting information, so as to address the entire breadth of individuals concerned.

Finally, good storytelling and design often go hand in hand. Although most individuals and companies would consider these to be secondary in the importance of creating an annual report, it may be wise to consider that an average reader will often a) judge a book by its cover, and b) judge a book by its story. An incoherent and uninspiring report, regardless of the richness of factual information presented within, may resonate poorly with readers, who may wish to quite simply, put it down after a few pages.

And last but not least, to end on a more cheerful note, and to help you mull over the information above; it is important to reference another story. And thus…

Seven blind elephants realised, to their horror, that they had no idea what a man looked like! And after much debating, they decided to set out to find a man, feel it, and come back and report on their results. And when they got back, all the elephants unanimously agreed on their findings. A man was flat, like a pancake.

© Copyright March 2017
The ideas discussed here may be used, adapted or built upon for academic or commercial purposes provided due credit is given to Smart Media The Annual Report Company as the originator of this work.