March 2002

XBRL Essentials

By Charles Hoffman and Carolyn Strand

Published by the AICPA; $39.95; Paperback, 180 pp.; ISBN: 0870513532

Reviewed by Ford Levy

XBRL Essentials, written by Charles Hoffman and Carolyn Strand, is an introduction to the Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). Its target audience is those curious about XBRL and those wishing to build a foundation for continued learning. Although written by two CPAs, it does not require an accounting degree to read and understand. What it does require is the motivation to learn a technical subject and a basic understanding of computers and business.

XBRL Essentials starts by trumpeting the advantages of XBRL and its open-ended architecture. As an industry specific application of XML (Extensible Markup Language), XBRL utilizes the interconnectivity, commonality, and information sharing championed by the Internet.

Following the introductory chapter, the book discusses the building blocks of XBRL, including a more detailed description of XML and tags and other related industry standards. Those familiar with HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) will recognize the tagging system that is similarly employed by XML. The difference between HTML and an application of XML such as XBRL is that the tags don’t simply describe how to display the data, but give meaning to the data. Instead of telling the computer that the number 1,000 should be bold, XBRL tells the computer that the number 1,000 represents cash and cash equivalents for the year ended 2001 for company ABC.

Chapter three delves more deeply into XBRL, explaining its design goals, elements, and related terms. Definitions of taxonomy (the framework for creating XML-based documents) and instance documents (such as the financial statements of a company expressed in XBRL) are provided, along with examples and component flowcharts. The technical portions of this chapter provide an underlying description of XBRL and how it works. They are not necessary for an overall understanding of the topic but do satisfy an additional level of curiosity.

Once the reader has a concept of the background and advantages of XBRL and how its components fit together, the book takes the reader through the process of creating and using XBRL. This is where the book shines. By utilizing examples available on the web, and by providing both a front-and-back end view of XBRL in action, the reader is provided with insight into the real solutions that XBRL can provide.

Finally, the book provides a discussion on the issues and questions surrounding the introduction and incorporation of XBRL into the business community. These issues include XBRL’s impact on the accounting profession, integrating XBRL into a professional’s skill set, and the organizational challenges of XBRL. The discussion is limited to XBRL’s perceived advantages and fails to disclose any serious weaknesses.

Does XBRL Essentials successfully target its audience, hold that audience, and leave that audience with a basic understanding of XBRL and its advantages?

The target audience is someone with limited knowledge but extensive interest in this new technology. Although the book tries to remain nontechnical, it sometimes strays. This is exemplified by using terms such as “operational data stores” instead of simply data storage and by introducing topics before quickly dismissing them as “beyond the book’s scope.” If this is your first technical book, I suggest you start elsewhere.

Although there is a wealth of information in this book, the first half of the book is filled with a great deal of hype regarding XBRL and how it will change business reporting. For example, the foreword, filled with numerous acronyms (many undefined) and superlatives, is best skipped. Throughout the book, the authors often detour from a technical perspective to a sales mode, telling the reader how XBRL is “mind-boggling,” how it will “significantly reduce cost,” and how it will make business work “better, cheaper and faster.” Will businesses incorporate XBRL as a standard of communication throughout their product line, even if it reduces sales once propagated by proprietary inter-product communication? This book assumes yes, without providing any evidence of alternative arguments.

One way to hold an audience through a technical discussion is with examples and figures. Although the book is filled with these, they are often detached from the associated text, coming pages before or after their reference. The most beneficial use of examples is found in the technical chapter, where the website is used as a reference.

The best incentive to finish a jigsaw puzzle is the completed picture on the box. The best incentive to complete a technical manual is an up-front picture of what will be learned. Although the later chapters provide such examples, the failure to do so in the introductory stages risks losing the reader’s interest, especially in the first two chapters.

Although XBRL Essentials tries to paint a picture of XBRL through foundation-building steps, the distinctiveness of its chapters, its overabundance of hype and redundant selling in its introductory sections, and its inability to hold the reader’s interest through a focused effort somewhat diminish its overall ability to educate.

Given the current dearth of introductory books on the subject, XBRL Essentials tries to fill this void. Is it perfect? No. But for those that want a glimpse into the future and are willing to see the book as a technical reference instead of a cover-to-cover read, it is a worthy addition to their technical library.

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