The digital shift

Extensible business reporting language is transforming the way companies deal with and disseminate data.

We live in complicated times. Nowhere is that more evident than in the amount of data we produce, both on personal and organizational levels. When it comes to corporate reporting, that amount is no longer manageable on a human scale. Extensible business reporting language (XBRL) was developed as a way to easily deal with and disseminate that data.

 

“XBRL is not a single way of reporting. It’s a method of presenting data that can be consumed in inter-operable ways across organizational boundaries. It is entirely system-independent,” explains John Turner, CEO of XBRL International, a not-for-profit consortium that manages the standards organization.

 

Recently, XBRL Canada and CPA Canada assembled a panel of experts to talk about shifts in the current business environment and what companies can do to ensure their corporate reporting is addressing the needs of their ever-growing audience.

 

For public companies, XBRL can provide extra assurance of the quality of the data being shared. “The information is validated prior to being submitted to a regulator,” says Turner. “That validation process is an important aspect in the shift from paper to digital, and allows everyone involved to be confident that the information meets agreed data quality requirements.”

 

In an age when transparency is becoming increasingly important, “making yourself visible to investors everywhere is a key concern — or should be,” says Turner. “The goal is to make the information easily consumable by both people and machines — that’s the way to get corporate disclosures to investors, analysts, the public and regulators.”

 

The benefits of such a system extend beyond the organization itself. “One of the benefits for investors is to be able to access relevant information without having to drill down through each company’s information,” says Chantal Rassart, CPA, CA, partner, national services and audit knowledge management officer at Deloitte. “XBRL viewers (dashboards), for example, allow investors to select several companies to review the details they want to compare.”

 

Canadian public companies listed as a foreign private issuer with the US Securities and Exchange Commission and using international financial reporting standards are now required to file their financial statements electronically using XBRL. But why aren’t more companies already using such a comprehensive system?

 

“There’s no legal requirement from securities commissions to at the moment,” says Rassart. “It’s hard for some companies to see the value in XBRL. They look at it and think, ‘Oh, another requirement.’ It does take time because they need to map their trial balance with the taxonomy and also the taxonomy used to file their tax returns and other government-required information with XBRL. The taxonomy is very general, so it doesn’t take into account the unique circumstances of a single company. We need to have a stronger taxonomy that takes into account specialized industries.”

 

On the other hand, Rassart also sees organizations that are already moving beyond minimum requirements and embracing XBRL. “Some companies are already building the taxonomy within their own system and using it within their own internal reporting systems.”

 

“Almost all financial reporting initiatives are now focused on digital information and the shift from paper to digital,” says Turner. “The whole exercise [of adopting XBRL] is a process of moving into the modern age. Everything else you do on a day-to-day basis has changed over the last few years. But financial statements have not. That’s now changing.”

 

Rassart advises taking a holistic approach to XBRL. “Don’t treat it as a separate exercise. Integrate it into your system. It takes more time up front, but you do it once and then every subsequent time you release your financial statements, everything is already tagged and ready.”

 

Turner adds, “Think of this not as a compliance exercise, but as a communications exercise. This is a way of creating a direct connection between the company and its investors — both new and potential.”

 

To find more information and resources on XBRL, visit http://www.cpacanada.ca/digitalreporting and http://www.cpacanada.ca/xbrl