XBRL – Is its Full Potential Trapped by its Name?
For those that have followed CLOUD for the last several months, you already know that our vision is not only bold, but that it is blessed by some “bright lights” in the XBRL community. From my college friend and the the Sr. Advisor to former Chairman Cox at the SEC, Paul Wilkinson, who is our Chief Strategy Officer, to Charlie Hoffman, the “father of XBRL,” who is a member of our strategic advisory board, CLOUD is fortunate to share some common blood lines with the eXtensible Business Reporting Language. As I sit here on my flight to Philadelphia for the XBRL US conference, I am getting excited about being knee deep in the topic and the community for the next few days. As I make the trip, however, I have not been able to shake this nagging question that I’ve had since I first picked up Charlie and Liv’s book, “XBRL for Dummies.” Is the full potential and future success of XBRL trapped by its name?Now, after ten years and a lot of taxonomies (including most recently China), the last thing I am proposing here is to change the name! But, even with the same name, a new perspective might unleash this very important standard to achieve an even bolder and more pervasive future. It seems to me that because of XBRL’s name, it is stuck between two challenges, when and where it is used. I know I’m going to learn a lot more about the ins and outs and daily use of XBRL while I’m in Philadelphia, but it seems to me that “tagging” the business information at the point of reporting misses the point. During Sibos (SWIFT’s global financial services conference) in Amsterdam two weeks ago, I was exposed to a lot of really great thinkers on the topic of the semantic web. One of the issues with the semantic web is well… how to make it semantic, and that means, of course, tags.
So, the issue is when, where and how do you start the tag stream? And, like the placement centers at our universities, does it make sense to put either at the “end” of the process. Placement centers would be far more useful during our freshman year, so as to help guide the courses we might take the next four years, while we can still change things. It seems as if XBRL is plagued by the same issue. Do we start using it too late in the process? What would happen if XBRL tagging occurred at the moment that information was “created.” Would new possibilities be unlocked for the newly semantically-tagged information and would the heavy lifting required to get our financial reports tucked neatly into XBRL and the appropriate taxonomies change complexion as a result of this new paradigm?
As I commented a few months ago in “When Standards Interact: A CLOUD-Inspired Future for XBRL,” the verbs we use to describe the process for XBRL filings belies the fact that we are using 21st century technology in decidedly paper-based ways. I will be expanding on this concept in an upcoming book, “The End of Linearity: How the Shift From Paper to the Internet is Bigger than the Shift from Scrolls to the Gutenberg Press.” At a basic level, the very geography of our business reports changes in the electronic world. The reports are no longer trapped by the geography of paper and the ways in which this two-dimensional framework forces us to construct data sets. And, that is, of course, all a financial report is. It is a data set compiled in a specific way, using a specific language (taxonomy) to communicate a specific set of information to a fairly narrow community of users for that information.
I would conted that the power of XBRL has not yet been fully unleashed, and there are at least two vectors by which it can begin to expand its influence. By developing into these new arenas, I would also argue that it can take on more of the characteristics of HTML as a standard, as opposed to the more laborious adoption curve it has experienced to date. No one asks how to put together a web page anymore. It is assumed that if you are creating a window into the Internet for presentation of information, then you have likely “tagged” it in HTML. There may be debate at the edges, like the recent one between Adobe and Apple over Flash versus HTML5, but notice that HTML was still part of the debate. Of course, the recent announcements by China regarding its taxonomy certainly adds a large number of people and companies to the equation in XBRL’s favor! But, it can go further.