Microsoft PowerPivot helps one see the possibilities which something like XBRL enables. PowerPivot is an Excel add in with gives users the flexibility they need but at the same time gives the IT department the control they need. This videohelps you get an understanding of PowerPivot. (Gemini was the initial name for PowerPivot.) This videoshows how and information mashup can be put together.
I have not tried PowerPivot yet, you need Office 2010 to use it. But now I am very motivated to upgrade and try this free Excel add in. Mr. Excel in the second video says this about PowerPivot:
"Greatest thing I have seen coming from Microsoft in 15 years."
Imagine a PowerPivot "database" (not sure what to call it) which combines information internal to your organization and information external to your organization working seamlessly together to help you manage some aspect of your business supply chain. I have heard this called "external analytics". Your data set is connected to other data sets external to your organization. Perhaps the SEC XBRL data set as an example of one publicly available standardized set of information.
Not interested in public company financial information? That is not the point. While the SEC XBRL data set itself might not be useful to you, think of other data sets which could be useful.
There are four overarching trends which work together to make this sort of vision possible:
- The Internet. If we were not all connected together there would be less of a possibility to be able to exchange information because of the expense of doing so. Lots of people exchanged information before the Internet existed, now anyone can exchange information with anyone else for pennies. I am talking about the Internet here, not the Web. If you don't understand the difference, you definitely want to read about how the Web is dead.
- Model based reporting. Business intelligence (BI) applications are growing in popularity. One example of this is how BI applications are changing the last mile of finance. One of the core pieces of BI is use of the multidimensional model which provides flexibility. You can use the same piece of information in different ways. The important piece here is not BI, it is the flexibility of the multidimensional model. This OLAP Council white paperhelps you understand why the multidimensional model is important.
- Structured, standard data formats. Unstructured information such as a word processing document or HTML file or PDF file makes reusing the information in those files impossible. But structured information can be put into a database and reusing it is quite easy. But you need your database to connect to someone else's databaes. So if one database is going to be connected to another database; what is the standard database format which you are going to use? Well, of course, it is your database format, right? Well, others with different database formats would likely disagree. There is no standard database format. Nor should there be. But, you have to somehow link systems together and you need some syntax to do that. XML, RDF/OWL, XBRL, CSV, it really makes little difference. As long as the format is understood, technically anything can be integrated.
- Semantic and process interoperability. In addition to the technical interoperability, you still need semantic interoperability and process interoperabilityto achieve business system to business system integration. An example of this is how I can use my Apple iMac and create a video in iMovie and then upload it to Google's YouTube.com. Two different applications, two different companies, working together seamlessly.
All this sound mind-numbingly complicated to you? Don't worry about it. That is what technical people do, they make stuff like this work. What is important to understand is that fundamental changes are coming to business processes. One example is financial reporting.
Don't be fooled into thinking that the SEC's little experiment with XBRL is a misguided regulatory mandate which does little more that add unnecessary costs to a process which works fine today. The SEC is being quite progressive, not something one might expect from a government agency. What the SEC is doing is only part of a larger global trend started by little regulators like the Dutch Association of Water Board as early as 2004 and bigger regulators like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and others. These government regulators are only priming the pump.
While I do think PowerPivot has its short comings such as it requires you to have Excel (i.e. it is proprietary to one vendors software) and it cannot be used to create content, only report on content and it seems to be focused on numeric information (i.e. I have not seen it handle textual information); PowerPivot is a very nice piece of software which helps one see the possibilities.