Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Numbers are nice, but words are always our best friends

June 2008

The use of statistics and numerical data is no substitute for a written explanation, says Roger Cowe

A picture is supposedly worth a thousand words (although as a former journalist I still find that difficult to take). But words, even if abbreviated in txt msgs, are still our main means of communication and they shouldn’t be neglected in communicating business performance.

I began my working life as a management accountant, which left me impatient with any attempt to talk about business without using numbers. However, I have spent the rest of my career working with words and now find it equally frustrating when people rely on numbers alone.

Even when companies are reporting their financial performance, words are just as important as the numbers – witness the expanded requirement in UK company law for directors to provide a substantial commentary in the business review. Numbers provoke questions rather than provide answers.

This quantitative-qualitative balance is in danger of being lost in communicating corporate responsibility. There is a tendency to assume a company’s performance can be summed up with a few figures, possibly slotted into a Global Reporting Initiative table or included as a few extra charts in the financial annual report.

Numbers are necessary, and some companies (or at least their lawyers) are still reluctant to provide precision. They may be necessary but they are not sufficient. Some people seem to believe that CSR will have made it when analysts can take a sustainability report and slot numbers into a spreadsheet that will allow them to reach conclusions. This is a delusion. It’s important to understand the limitation of numbers and the value of qualitative judgements in assessing a company’s corporate responsibility record.

Take supply chain carbon emissions. It’s important for companies to work on reducing suppliers’ emissions as well as their own, especially in these days of outsourcing when a major brand owner is likely to have a relatively low direct impact. But it doesn’t seem at all meaningful to get companies to report suppliers’ emissions in the same way they report their own. How far down the supply chain should you go? How do you assess the proportion of emissions attributable to each customer, especially in factories supplying hundreds of customers with a range of products?

Supply chain emissions are important, but this may be an area where the numbers don’t even raise sensible questions, never mind provide meaningful answers.

The value of figures is in being able to compare one company with another and one year to the next. That’s difficult enough in the financial world, especially once you get beyond the basics of sales, profits and dividends. In the much more qualitative world of CSR it is well-nigh impossible. The words need to come first; numbers are a supporting act.

Roger Cowe is a director of the corporate responsibility strategy and communications consultancy Context.

Roger Cowe | Global | Communication


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