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XBRL: The Future of Online Financial Data.

Introduction

The "information superhighway" is proving to be a great way to do business. Many companies are now increasing their visibility on the Internet and displaying various information about themselves (including financial information). However, the lack of standard definitions for various types of data on web sites and the use of proprietary formats for presenting financial information create confusion and limit the usefulness and transferability of such reports.

In order to make online financial reporting more usable, XBRL (Extensible Financial Reporting Markup Language) is being developed by a consortium of companies and organizations as a standards-based program. This language will provide users the ability to prepare, publish, exchange, and analyze information in financial reports in a variety of formats. In addition, it will serve to integrate software applications by enabling the automatic exchange and reliable extraction of financial information among various users.

The Need for XBRL

Despite the excitement over increased use of the Internet for electronic commerce, a major problem inherent in information systems still plagues E-commerce--how to make information that is originally created in one format/platform accessible in another format/platform. The original solution to this problem was HTML, a programming language used to apply tags to describe content on web pages. These tags provide descriptive elements (such as a header, table, background color, italics, and bold) to the web page content (which make it accessible to Internet browser software).

HTML tags tell web browsers how to display information in a web page. For example, the tags [less than]B[greater than] and [less than]/B[greater than] (when placed around text) indicate that the text between the tags should be displayed in bold format. As another example, [less than]BODY[greater than] and [less than]/BODY[greater than] are used to mark off the body of a web page.

HTML gives programmers a great deal of room for originality and creativity in formatting web pages. Individual companies developed their own proprietary standards for using HTML, standards which (more often than not) do not conform to any other company's HTML. As a result, HTML does not easily facilitate the essential requirement for business-to-business transactions--the reliable exchange of data. Today's Internet is a vast, unruly collection of HTML, Java SCRIPT and Java on the client side, and a grab bag of scripted and compiled languages on the server side.

Understanding XML

Since XBRL is based on XML, one must first understand XML. In 1996, a new language (Extensible Markup Language, or XML) was introduced for the creation of web pages. It provides structure for the creation of web pages whose content is more accessible, usable and transferable to various applications. XML uses pairs of tags to provide metadata, or information that describes the web page content. XML tags are applied to pieces of text to identify them as being certain types of data elements, similar to those in a database. Each piece of information on a web page is categorized with a standardized XML tag. Applications can easily zoom in on XML-created web pages and extract the specific data elements of interest. For example, a computer could easily read and/or extract a patient's name and/or allergy condition from the following XML notation:

[less than]patient[greater than] [less than]name[greater than]John Doe[less than]/name[greater than] [less than]drug-allergy[greater than]penicillin[less than]/drug-allergy[greater than] [less than]/patient[greater than].

Accounting is one of the fields that has been creating its own "standards" for the use of XML by creating document-type definitions that dictate the schema or logical structure for standard documents. Examples of this include data element types, naming conventions, location for elements on a document, and the relationships among the data elements.

The goal of XBRL is to create a standard set of specifications, or terms, which is the same for all companies and consistent from one financial statement to another (creating a platform independent solution enabling ubiquitous reporting formats").

Development of XBRL

In 1998, a task force began to explore the possibility of using XML for the electronic reporting of financial information. By late 1998, the task force agreed to provide funding for a project that would create a prototype set of financial statements in XML. An XBRL Steering Committee was created in 1999 that currently includes more than 30 member companies and organizations.

The XBRL Working Group maintains a web site XBRI.ORG, which publishes up-to-date information pertaining to the adoption of XBRL. In October 1999, the XBRL Steering Committee completed an experimental prototype of XBRL (which was used to create financial statements for 10 companies). A Working Group presented the first phase of XBRL standards in March 2000. XBRL is expected to be freely licensed and used extensively by accountants.

Benefits of XBRL for the Field of Accounting

XBRL will offer many benefits to the accounting profession, including:

* Automatic exchange and reliable extraction of financial information among various spreadsheets and software applications that share the XML format. Users will be able to extract various types of information (such as auditors' reports, balance sheets, income statements, cash flow statements, stockholders equity information, and notes/supplemental schedules included with the financial statements)

* Automated and reliable comparisons between business entities (made possible by the use of agreed-upon type tags to organize and tag financial statements)

* One-time creation of financial statement information that can then be rendered many times (i.e., as a printed document, a web page, a bank filing, or an EDGARIZED 10-k form for filing with the Security and Exchange Commission)

* Cross-referencing of financial statements to all major authoritative accounting pronouncements and standards

* Cross-referencing to all other major reporting formats

* Support from all major accounting software developers and providers of audit work papers

* Flexibility for users to create additional tags to extend the XBRL language to fit their needs (or create their own style sheets for viewing financial statements)

* Direct extraction and importation of data from financial statements into financial statement analysis

* Sharing of data from financial statements between any database and application that supports the XML format

* Security feature that indicates if an XBRL file has been modified

* Readiness for international use (XML uses Unicode, a character-encoding system that enables the exchange of information in all major world languages).

Prospects for the Future of XBRL

XBRL will have a major impact on all participants in the financial reporting supply chain. Companies will be able to prepare financial statements more efficiently (i.e., creating them once and then being able to render them as printed reports, on web sites, or as Edgar or other regulatory filings). Analysts, investors and regulators will benefit from automated analysis, less re-keying of information from one form into another, and ability to receive information in the preferred format for specific types of analysis.

XBRL is expected to have other impacts as well on the financial world. XBRL will eventually be used to represent all authoritative accounting literature, reporting precedent, and accounting research materials. The Securities and Exchange Commission will soon use XML as a filing format. Every public company will be able to make its financial information available on its web site. Companies applying for loans will be able to E-mail to the bank their XBRL-formatted financial information, which will then be automatically imported into the bank's loan analysis software.

Financial auditing can be a continuous process performed on a daily basis instead of once a year. XBRL will make possible an auditing by exception process that will improve security and help eliminate fraud within the company. In addition, the auditing process will use intelligence agents to notify the auditor of discrepancies in "near real-time." A bank in Italy has already begun offering loans at lower rates to companies that use XBRL standards, since they can audit themselves more consistently and are, therefore, lower loan risks for the bank.

Conclusions

As electronic commerce on the Internet grows, businesses are revealing more and more about themselves on their web sites, including financial information. Confusion and errors have resulted from the lack of standardized definitions and formats for financial statements. The intelligent tags and structure, which XBRL provides for creating documents containing financial statements, will identify and show relationships between individual pieces of data. By using XBRL, documents are easily accessible and more understandable for all types of web browsers and easily transferable to other formats and applications.

Expectations are high for the XBRL Work Group's release of the newest accounting-specialized Internet programming language. If XBRL fulfills its objectives, it will result in enhanced communication of financial information, reduced costs of doing business, and increased efficiency of business decision-making. Only time will reveal the real impact of XBRL on the financial world and on financial transactions conducted by businesses on the Internet.

Abbas Foroughi, Ph.D., is a Professor of Computer Information Systems in the School of Business at the University of Southern Indiana.

Brian L. McGuire, Ph.D., CPA, CMA, is an Assistant Professor of Accounting in the School of Business at the University of Southern Indiana.

Mehmet C. Kocakulah, Ph.D. is a Professor of Accounting in the School of Business at the University of Southern Indiana.

Jeanette Maier-Lytle, MBA, CPA, is an Instructor of Accounting in the School of Business at the University of Southern Indiana.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Society of Public Accountants
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:XBRL (Extensible Financial Reporting Markup Language)
Author:Foroughi, Abbas; McGuire, Brian L.; Kocakulah, Mehmet C.; Maier-Lytle, Jeanette
Publication:The National Public Accountant
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:1545
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