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XBRL: The Inside Story

After years of development, data tagging seems little more than a minor financial-reporting requirement. Yet some now say it could transform internal finance operations. Is this XBRL's true calling, or just more hype?

After more than a decade of hype about the benefits of coding financial data with XBRL, the good news for companies now required to do so is that it seems relatively easy and inexpensive. While in the final analysis XBRL may not add much value, preparers say, at worst it is a minor inconvenience.

That’s a somewhat deflating description. Former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox staked much of his now-tattered reputation on the investor benefits of XBRL. Others claimed it would streamline international accounting convergence and render differences in financial-statement presentation all but moot. And it may yet do all of those things.

Now, however, advocates are pointing to a completely different area that may benefit from XBRL: internal management reporting.

Put simply, the premise is that tagging information in financial and other IT systems in a standardized format would make it easier for companies to share data across units and departments. That in turn would improve internal reporting, the argument goes. Notably, companies would be able to view performance as reflected in various line items on a continuous real-time basis, rather than waiting for the end of a reporting period to get the full picture. Better business decisions then could be made, and more quickly.

This month a major industry group, the Institute of Management Accountants, formed an XBRL Advisory Committee to build awareness that data tagging can do more than satisfy compliance requirements. “We’re focused on moving XBRL down internally into organizations,” Nevada State Controller Kim Wallin, the committee’s chair, told CFO.com. “We feel it’s a great tool for business intelligence, getting rid of spreadsheets, and improving internal controls.”

Nevada is regarded as a pioneer for its use of XBRL to improve reporting on, and increase the efficiency of, debt collection and the awarding of grants. It remains to be seen, though, how soon companies generally might begin to realize any benefits. Tagging internal data would require additional development work beyond that done for public financials. For most, thoughts of using XBRL to improve the business are far off the radar screen, or at least have been stalled by the recession.

“Right now organizations are only funding projects they see as strategic,” says John Van Decker, a research vice president with Gartner Group, an IT advisory firm, which recently issued a report that urged companies to work toward internal use of XBRL. “An XBRL initiative actually would be strategic, because it could improve management reporting, but I don’t see that most companies understand what it can provide,” says Van Decker. “It’s just thought of [as] something that will need to be done for external financial reporting.”

(The SEC has mandated that all U.S. public companies file data-tagged financial reports by 2011, starting with the 500 largest for periods ending after June 15 of this year.)

Software Shortfall

But even companies that have a high opinion of what bringing XBRL to bear internally could provide are not rushing in. At Microsoft — which began filing data-tagged financials in 2004, even before the SEC organized a voluntary early adoption program — there has been talk of using XBRL for a current project to upgrade internal reporting, but no action.

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