Like many other folks, I vividly recall my first foray into technology.
It was back in 1974 and I needed an elective. My father, who was just slightly ahead of Ned Ludd in terms of embracing progress, inexplicably encouraged me to take the class. In a shocking departure from his traditional recalcitrance, he told me computers were the “vehicle of the future.”
Through patient coaching by an understanding instructor, I somehow compiled an elementary program on a bundled stack of punch cards and proceeded to run them through a computer that was roughly the size of Des Moines.
I also learned a hard lesson that spring afternoon.
If one card was out of order, or contained a typo, the resulting program sheet would more resemble hieroglyphics than a comprehensible program.
Needless to say I ran through a few reams of paper during that course and had to repeat more programs than do TV networks in the summer.
Unfortunately, the experience left me so gun-shy about technology that, for the ensuing two decades, I stayed safely away from anything that I even suspected contained a microchip.
But fast-forward to the early 1990s, when in a previous job, the management foisted Apple computers on the writing staff and told us to promptly discard our IBM Selectrics and Royal manuals.
And in the event of “holdouts,” the office services staff wheeled around an oversized trash barrel and insisted on watching as editors threw out the only instrument many had ever used.
And I can safely say, it’s been all downhill from there.
Not that I would ever for a moment dispute how much easier the wizards in Silicon Valley have made our jobs — it’s just that with the exception of routine maintenance checks and scans, I know frighteningly little more now than I did 30 years ago.
Fortunately, there are many others in the profession who do.
It was roughly two years ago that I received my first demonstration of eXtensible Business Reporting Language, or XBRL — the financial reporting derivation of Extensible Mark-up Language, or XML. Its younger sibling is a framework that establishes individual “tags” for elements in structured documents, allowing specific elements to be immediately accessed and aggregated. This tagging, as explained to me, affords users easier online searches and analysis and enables disparate software applications to transmit and share information.
Despite the current era of repeated calls for greater transparency in financial information, XBRL hasn’t quite generated the groundswell that it has in Europe and Asia — particularly among regulators.
As an example, the European Commission earmarked 1 million euros (about US$1.23 million) for the “XBRL in Europe Consortium,” to help boost increasing awareness of XBRL in the EU.
Not to say that the movement has stalled here. In June 2003, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. launched a $39 million call reporting modernization system that uses XBRL.
And now the Securities and Exchange System is making noise about XBRL, as the watchdog is examining the benefits of allowing public companies to file their financials using XBRL and indicated that it may propose a rule that would allow just that starting with year-end reports for 2004.
Now, given my shallow technology resume, I probably shouldn’t be the one to opine about the value of seamless financial integration and more accurate side-by-side comparisons.
The SEC chairman, William Donaldson, stated the XBRL effort is part of a broader strategy to improve the quality of information available to investors and the market.
If it does, then I’m all for that, as should the remaining 90 million members of the investing public be.
Just don’t let me get a whiff of a punchcard.
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