One on One with Diane Mueller, XBRL expert at Just Systems

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Diane Mueller is vice president of XBRL development at JustSystems. She has been actively involved in the development of the XBRL standard including acting as the Canadian representative to the XBRL International Steering Committee. She serves as Vice Chair of that body, and chairs the XBRL Working Groups on Rendering and Software Interoperability. We asked her about XBRL and why it's so important.

FCM: Explain XBRL in a nutshell for our readers?

DM: In a nutshell, Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) makes financial information more accessible and easier to use through the application of XML. XBRL is one of a family of "XML" languages which has become the standard means of communicating information between businesses, regulators and investors across the Internet. The goal of XBRL is to enhance the exchange of corporate financial information by making it more comparable, consistent and accessible across the web. You could think of XBRL as the "grammar and syntax" for describing financial information. With XBRL, various regulators, domain experts and regional authorities have developed XBRL dictionaries (known as "taxonomies") based on regional and global accounting standards such as the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), the U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) or the U.K. GAAP to describe the specific financial terms and their relationship to one another based on specific domain areas. For example, one can look at how "Mutual Fund Disclosures" pertain to specific regions such as the United States of United Kingdom. The idea is simple--instead of treating financial information as a block of text, it provides an identifying tag for each individual item of data. By supplying these terms in a computer-readable manner, consuming applications can easily and accurately parse and analyze the information.
 
FCM: How is using XBRL better than the old way of submitting financial information to the SEC?
 
DM: When financial content is supplied as XBRL, consumers can automatically extract and analyze the information in financial documents and know that they are interpreting the facts accurately. Without XBRL, such information had to be painstakingly mapped and extracted from a variety of sources in a process that was often normalized, prone to human error in the interpretation and often costly. The SEC has the onerous task of insuring the accuracy of all corporate submissions in a timely fashion. XBRL enables the SEC to automate the validation of the content in the submissions, apply a battery of automated tests that cull out the usual human errors and common mistakes in submissions, and apply their own risk tests. This saves the time and energy of reviewers by supplying a more needle-rich haystack to look through for other, more ominous forms of fraud and malfeasances.
 
FCM: How did the XBRL XML standard develop?
 
DM: XBRL represents a unique technology collaboration of organizations across the financial information supply chain, and the diversity of these organizations perhaps accounts for the successful and rapid adoption of XBRL. From the beginning, the effort has been inclusive of a wide range of perspectives. Starting with small group of evangelists back in 1998, the effort grew to include accounting firms, accounting organizations, regulators, software vendors and XML experts from over 550 companies and agencies worldwide that continue work together to build the XBRL specification and promote and support its global adoption under the auspices of XBRL International (www.xbrl.org).  
 
FCM: What uses does the language have beyond helping the SEC process information faster?
 
DM: Beyond its use in financial statements like those found in U.S. SEC filings, XBRL is being applied around the globe in a number of other areas such as tax reporting, sustainability reporting, statistical reporting, and other financial and non-financial business metrics.  We are seeing XBRL incorporated into various other federal, state and municipal financial reporting projects in an effort to modernize intra-governmental reporting. This is not to say that XBRL is the panacea for all business reporting, but by supplying a standard that can be harmonized and mapped to other XML standards such as NIEM, RIXML, or NEWSml, financial content found in XBRL-tagged documents can more easily be mashed up and searched. This enables a wider range of inquiry and discovery of new relationships in the massive amount of financial and business information that is rapidly becoming available on the web.

FCM: What kind of products are developing around XBRL to make it more usable for organizations?
 
DM: There are many of XBRL-enhanced products and services available today. They range from simple, helper tools for creating XBRL-tagged financial reports to entire XBRL data reporting platforms that enable the collection and aggregation of XBRL documents to desktop applications that allow the consumption of XBRL content for the creation of research reports and audit findings. There are web services available that enable you to subscribe to XBRL-enhanced data feeds, and the U.S. SEC even supplies its own RSS feed to U.S. SEC filings with XBRL content. While XBRL allows for more accurate consumption and interpretation of financial information, there is still a need to connect to the authentic source of the document and to recombine the XBRL content with other data sources. That said, I see a new genre of products on the horizon that will enable consumers to leverage social networking, mash-up and semantic technologies to communicate and share financial information more effectively and rapidly across the web with implications for the fluidity and transparency of the capital markets.

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