A Wealth of Potential: Interview with Ian Hicks

Last week, CoreFiling’s Ian Hicks took part in the FRC’s Digital Future: Data round table, and discussed ways to combat the current “under-performance” of financial data. After the event, we sat down with Ian to talk about the benefits and challenges of using XBRL for Digital Future.


DAN: Is XBRL right for Digital Future?

IAN: Oh, absolutely. XBRL has applications around the world, and it’s flexible enough to meet the main goal of Digital Future, which to me is data versatility. The nice thing about XBRL is that it creates a kind of blank canvas with data, from which you can start to create solutions that meet the specific needs of each client or industry – that could be data automation, integration with other reporting media, and so on. That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit, though!

DAN: How so?

IAN: XBRL is a powerful standard, but it needs to be better at hiding complexity. CoreFiling already helped to address this in some instances when Philip Allen developed iXBRL, but XBRL itself still needs specialist applications to be useful.

DAN: You currently chair the XBRL Best Practices Board. Is reducing complexity something you focus on?

IAN: Oh absolutely, yes. But that relies on more than just developing XBRL. To reduce the complexity of an XBRL-based system, you need to take a holistic approach – develop working methods and processes that enhance customer experience, for example, or take advantage of new technologies.

DAN: What would be on your wish list for XBRL development?

IAN: I think the most useful thing for all applications, including Digital Future Reporting, would be to make XBRL a little more visual – more “renderable” – outside of specialist tools. Similar to how Microsoft plug-ins can be embedded in a browser. We’ve already started to address this with our Beacon platform, which renders XBRL instance data and displays it in a format that users can engage with.

From a more technical standpoint, I’d like to see features such as non-repudiation of instances – i.e. was the instance created by an authorized person, have its contents changed, is the date stamp correct, etc. More widespread use of auto-tagging would also be a great benefit to the preparer, accountancy and audit communities, both from an XBRL perspective and from the point of choosing the most appropriate concept.

DAN: How would those advances relate to Digital Future Reporting?

IAN: The Digital Future Reporting model is all about taking advantage of technology. The advantage of using XBRL is that it already supports features like auto-tagging – that’s how CoreFiling’s instance creation tool, Seahorse, is able to auto-tag filing documents, for example. The challenge is just to maximise the usage of these features.

DAN: Do you think XBRL is under-used in the fintech industry?

IAN: XBRL itself has an enormous user base around the world, but I do think its more advanced features are overlooked – which is why the Digital Future Reporting model is so key. But I think the most important thing is to deploy XBRL where it can be of maximum use. There was an interesting discussion in Dublin regarding “NOXBRL” – not a rejection of XBRL as it might imply, but rather the idea of “Not Only” XBRL. This discussion was around hiding the complexity of XBRL reporting from filers. It went on to cover the idea that XBRL is fundamental, but that other technologies should be included to meet the overall regulatory reporting need.

To give you one example, investment analysts have already developed sophisticated systems sourcing data in a multitude of ways, like “web-scraping”. XBRL has the capability to massively enhance these processes through its ability to rapidly and effectively analyse large sets of structured and unstructured data – this ability to enhance other technologies is what makes XBRL so useful. We’re already seeing this in practice in other industry sectors.

Linked Data is another example. Linked Data and XBRL appear to have progressed in parallel: there needs to be closer co-operation to benefit from using both technologies. This co-operation could result in massive benefits to the analyst community by simplifying the process of comparing information from seemingly disparate data sets.

DAN: What about outside fintech?

IAN: Extending XBRL beyond finance isn’t just possible, it’s already happening, and I fully encourage it!

DAN: Can you give us an example?

IAN: Non-financial data looks to me to be the next ideal candidate for XBRL. We’ve already seen something similar in the US, with the SunShot Initiative’s Orange Button Programme – XBRL is going to be used for solar data gathering and analysis. It’s a great idea, because solar data comes from so many different sources across America. You need to keep data like that in a single, consistent format to make it useful. Equally, organisations like AECA in Spain are pioneering the reporting and analysis of sustainability data using XBRL.

DAN: Do you have any advice for people already working with XBRL?

IAN: I think taxonomy developers should broaden their approach when developing a taxonomy. Rather than thinking just about the regulation to be met, they should also consider and take into account, far more thoroughly, the needs of the groups who will be consuming and analysing the data.

I’d also advise the filer communities to require the solution vendors to provide the means to simplify XBRL filing, to hide the complexity from users and report preparers. This could only encourage a more widespread adoption of XBRL in digital reporting.

DAN: Thanks Ian!

IAN: Happy to help.


To find out more about the FRC’s financial reporting lab, and the goals of the future data model, click here. And for information on CoreFiling’s XBRL services, click here.

EDITOR’S NOTE: parts of this interview have been shortened for clarity.

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