The purpose of this paper is to offer theoretical and practical insights on the ways in which integrated thinking is observed in practice. Integrated thinking is linked to integrated reporting, and described as an attribute or capacity for senior management to constructively manage tensions between the multiple capitals (manufactured, intellectual, human, natural, social and relationship as well as financial capital) in strategy, resource allocation, performance measurement and control.
A theoretical framework is developed from the accounting and systems thinking literature, linking integrated thinking to sustainability. Soft versus hard integrated thinking approaches are applied to contrast the siloed management of sustainability with a model that focuses on relationships and broader indicators of societal health and well-being. Practical illustrations of the conceptualised framework are presented for discussion and for further empirical research.
The illustrative examples offer a diversity of corporate, government and not-for-profit viewpoints, providing evidence of both hard and soft integrated thinking in practice. Valuable insights are provided into innovative approaches that foster and make explicit the soft integrated thinking skills and map them to broader societal outcomes.
Potential problems can arise if hard integrated thinking dominates over the soft, and data required for internal management accounting purposes become narrow, linear and segregated. Routines and practices will then be based on quasi-standards, further concealing the soft integrated thinking that might be occurring within the organisation.
With theoretical roots in systems thinking, this paper contributes to the relatively underexplored area of integrated thinking in accounting for sustainability.
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