Is XBRL another regulatory compliance burden (hello, Sarbanes-Oxley Act) or is it an opportunity for companies to leverage an open-source (that is, “free”) technology to become more operationally efficient and cut costs (hello, Sarbanes-Oxley Act software)? If this sounds redundant to you, it should. I have been involved with XBRL since 2001. When I think about how far XBRL has come since then, I cannot help remembering my favorite movie trilogy, Back to the Future. At the end of the third movie, Marty (played by Michael J. Fox) wondered aloud why his future changed with a single choice—that is, not drag racing with another car whose driver called him “chicken”. Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) told Marty, “Your future is not set. It is whatever you want it to be.” Although those words are somewhat cheesy, they have resonated in my life choices since I first watched that movie.
So what does a moderately-popular movie trilogy have to do with XBRL? Plenty, in my opinion. XBRL has obviously grown into a global technological phenomenon, thanks in large part to regulators. Doc Brown’s response to Marty is the same kind of response CEOs, CFOs, and CIOs should be listening to: XBRL can be whatever they want it to be, meaning it can be simply a compliance burden (furnishing XBRL documents to regulators) or much, much more. How much more? Well, that is up to the individual management teams. Here are some examples.
There is a well-known European-based bank that successfully implemented an XBRL project over five years ago. This bank streamlined its operations and financial reporting by having all of its customer transactions entered by the customer into the bank’s website, which had XBRL embedded in it. After building a custom taxonomy, all data submitted (literally millions of lines of code, mostly credit reporting) was automatically tagged in accordance with the private taxonomy and entered into the bank’s database. Since the data was tagged in XBRL, it was reusable for internal sharing purposes across its hundreds of branches and was easily converted to the taxonomy required by regulators, whether foreign or domestic. A process that cost thousands of Euros has saved millions of Euros over the course of a few years.
But the opportunity to streamline operating efficiencies should not stop there. Given recent regulatory mandates, many of the bank’s customers are required to format their financial information in XBRL. The next opportunity is to have the customers send this data to the bank the same time that it is sent to the regulator. Rather than re-entering the data to or from one or more spreadsheets, the data is already formatted in XBRL. It is already easily usable by the bank and convertible into any format the bank prefers. Again, this is all done without the inefficiency of re-entering data and thus lowers credit risk.
Does a bank have to be subject to the SEC’s XBRL mandate to take advantage of this opportunity? No. All U.S. banks, for example, have been reporting their call reports in XBRL to the FDIC for over five years. I suspect that there have been similar practices and requirements globally. Does a company have to be a bank to take advantage of this XBRL capability? Again, no. Any company of any size that uses the Internet in its business operations or financial reporting can build a taxonomy to suit its needs. Alternatively, the company can have one custom-built for it by someone knowledgeable in XBRL and use a basic taxonomy editor. There is no need for expensive and potentially disruptive disclosure management software just to leverage XBRL in the fashion described above. Of course, if the company wants to upgrade consolidation or other disclosure management activities, implementing this type of software with or without XBRL is another option.
So can a data standard such as XBRL be successful in more internal, supply-chain management activities? One does not have to turn any farther than the health information technology domain for the answer. Health Level Seven (HL7) currently represents the global authority on standards for interoperability of health information technology, with members in over 55 countries (see HL7.org). HL7 provides standardization in domains such as patient demographics, clinical observations, patient care, and problem-oriented records. There are obvious differences between XBRL and HL7, but HL7 has been a successful global exercise of data standard in the healthcare reporting space. There is no reason why XBRL cannot duplicate this success in the financial reporting space.
To summarize, almost all XBRL implementations to date have been due to compliance with regulations. Management almost always has numerous concerns about strong regulatory compliance, and there are incentives to maintain this compliance. However, organizations worldwide have the opportunity to leverage XBRL much more than they currently are. All they need is a 25th hour in the day, 8th day in the week, and someone who is knowledgeable about building custom taxonomies.
Well, one out of three still gets you into the baseball All-Star game every year. Let the expansion in XBRL-based uses begin!
by Robert Pinsker