XBRL is a business standard. The immediate users include financial executives, accountants, analysts, and financial regulators, as well as investors of all sizes. All the suits and ties in the audience fit the picture of this user community–this sure does not look like the same crowd that I see at web publishing conferences.

But, scratch the surface, and there is a lot that’s the same. The audience at this conference is mostly people who are building things. They are early adopters and vendors and integrators serving early adopters.

One of the most interesting talks in the first set of the Tuesday morning sessions came from Peter Derby, whose job is to make the SEC more effective and efficient. His title is Managing Executive for Operations and Management, Office the Chairman, US. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC would like to be able to review the substance of a much greater number of financial reports with greater accuracy and greater reliability. Receiving the filings in the form of tagged data has obvious appeal.  So, last year the SEC put out a request for comment on a proposal to invite companies to make voluntary submissions of data in XBRL format. The voluntary program went live in March of this year.

And so far the SEC has received (drum roll …) THREE voluntary filings.

Gosh. That many!

To be fair, companies have been covered up with meeting Sarbanes-Oxley 404 requirements, which are sure not voluntary.  That could be one reason for the slow response rate to date. But Derby thinks there could be other reasons–and other problems for the XBRL community to solve …

  • Not enough off-the-shelf tools:Derby’s view is that, at the moment, XBRL is just too hard. There are not enough tools for preparers to use, and there are not enough analytical and presentation tools for information users. There are too many people still looking at tags.
  • Not enough internal use:One artifact of the way that XBRL has been driven by regulators is that much of the early activity has been focused at the end of the process: after a company produces its financial statements the old way, THEN they are broken into pieces and marked up in XBRL. Derby notes that these leaves out most of the potential financial benefit of the process. He suggests that the XBRL community needs to start making the case for use earlier in the process, when the XBRL might serve internal processes.
  • Too much focus on boiling the ocean:  Derby said that he recognizes, of course, that XBRL is an international standard, and so needs to address a host of difficult problems as you move across accounting standards and practices. But, in his view some of this time would be better spent by focusing on pragmatic issues such as making XBRL easier for humans to read, and on change management.

In my view, Derby’s first two points are on the money. I am less in agreement with the last one. Particularly with a lot of the XBRL activity happening within the European Union, I think that getting the internationalization right is critical.  And … human readability? I thought we were going to focus on tools.

In speaking privately with Derby after his presentation, I asked him about the purpose of the voluntary program. His answer was that the SEC simply needs to find out what they could do with XBRL submissions. Further, he feels that this initiative must be largely market-driven, not regulator driven. His hope is that, perhaps over a period of three years, the SEC will begin to see enough volume in submissions to permit some real economies and new approaches to using and analyzing the financial filings.

Derby’s presentation was followed by Otmar Winzig, Vice president of investor relations for Software AG and Member of the Board of DIRK (German Investor Relations Association). After hearing about Derby’s three voluntary submissions, Winzig was suddenly feeling much better about his pilot program of 8 companies, scheduled to expand this year to 25.

Winzig made an interesting argument for small and mid-cap companies to get behind XBRL–disintermediation.  As the investor relations head at a mid-cap company, he recognizes that one of his big problems is getting analyst coverage.  He argues that 90% of the 10,000 companies traded on European stock exchanges are virtually unknown to investors. As a result, these companies are almost completely dependent on sell-side analysts to get the word out about the company’s performance–even when results are outstanding.

Winzig sees a possibility that broad adoption of XBRL, coupled with tools that allow investors to make direct use of XBRL, would allow small and mid-cap companies to take their good stories directly to investors, and, in the process, to become more independent of analysts who are also interest driven market participants.

All of this should be pretty familiar to readers who have watched SGML or XML market development — or, for that matter, almost any new market. The market needs more applications to grow, and the market is not big enough to attract substantial investment and application development. Put another way, it is precisely the kind of market where entering early with a relatively modest investment can produce a nice return.