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Accountant’s Financial Concept Characteristic Obsession Needs to End

Accountants are generally obsessed with the financial concept characteristic of a reported fact to the detriment of other important characteristics, relations, and properties.  This obsession needs to end for SEC XBRL financial reports to be modeled correctly and for its information to be useful.

In a post to XBRL-public, David vun Kannon of Deloitte lamented about this to a degree when he was articulating why today's modern, complex business' financial position cannot be fairly presented to the capital market through a series of tables and text. Specifically, the statement was (emphasis added):

The whole hypercube and nothing but the hypercube. The data _and_ the dimensions. Standard dimensions are as important in every axis of the hypercube as they are in the financial account dimension.

I agree with this statement. The statement is a bit technical; a "dimension" and an "axis" is simply a way to express a characteristic. A "hypercube" is a way of organizing the characteristics of the different components which make up a financial report such as a balance sheet, income statement, or the many disclosures.

What I mean is this.  Accountants are all over the financial concept or financial account as it was put above, for example "Cash and cash equivalents" or "Net income (loss)".  A financial report such as an SEC XBRL financial filing, reports fact, those facts have values such as "100,000" and those facts are described by a number of characteristics such as:

  • The financial concept such as "Cash and cash equivalents" as opposed to perhaps "Net income (loss)".
  • The reporting entity such as CIK 1234567890 which identifies ABC Company as opposed to the CIK of 0987654321 which might describe XYZ Company.
  • The period such as December 31, 2011 or current balance sheet date as opposed to December 31, 2010 or prior balance sheet date.
  • The business segment of consolidated entity as opposed to one of the specific business segments.

These are only some examples of characteristics which describe the fact, there are many other examples (see section 2.7., Common characteristics of financial facts exist, of the Financial Report Semantics and Dynamics Theory for more examples).

These facts, values of those facts, characteristics which describe the facts, relations between the characteristics, and properties of the facts, characteristics, relations are what make up a digital financial report.  Reported facts are organized into components such as a balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement, policies, or disclosures.

All this "stuff" makes up a digital financial report or computer readable model; use whatever term you like.

As pointed out in my document Guide to Verification of an SEC XBRL Financial Report, to be a true and fair representation of an entities financial report, all of this "stuff" has to be correct, complete, consistent, accurate, possess fidelity and possess integrity.  All of it.  Not just the financial concept or financial account.

To achieve this objective, accountants need the assistance of good software.  Modeling this information correctly; the financial concept characteristic and all the other characteristics, relations, and properties; is detailed work, but no more detailed than expressing that same information in a Microsoft Word document. 

What is different is that accountants need to build computer readable models and not presentation-based text and tables.

As I see it, part of the cause of the obsession with the financial concept characteristic is the complexity of the overall process of creating something like an SEC XBRL financial report.  Accountants are simply grasping onto something, anything, understandable.  The financial concept is one thing, the presentation of the report is another.

You cannot really fault accountants for this.  Personally I fault software developers who have not delivered appropriate software.  Accountants are smart people.  This model-based approach to financial reporting is new to them.  You cannot expect them to jump from what they have been doing for years to something as complicated as the XBRL technical syntax.  But that is exactly what software vendors have built for accountants to use: XBRL technical syntax editors.

CEOs, CFOs, accounting managers, and other business users involved in the process put their names on this financial information and they need to be able to understand if the information is correct, complete, consistent, accurate, has fidelity, has integrity and is a true and fair representation of a reporting entities financial information.  All of it, not just the financial concept.  If they cannot achieve this objective, there is zero probability that digital financial reporting will ever replace paper-based or electronic paper-based (i.e. HTML, PDF) financial reporting.  Nor should it be allowed to.

Posted on Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 11:09AM by Registered CommenterCharlie in | CommentsPost a Comment

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