Attack of the killer accountants

The XBRL [eXtensible Business Reporting Language] spec describes how the parts of an XBRL instance interrelate, using state-of-the-art XML technologies such as XLink and XPointer. And it talks at length about the syntax and semantics of "taxonomies" that abstractly define chunks of financial reports. No sign of any actual financial data, though. And the link to a sample page at, returned a "404 Not Found." I'm not surprised. The poor bloke whose job it was to produce that sample must have suffered a polymorphic recursive brain meltdown. [Full story at]
Since I am not, myself, an actual financial expert (as Dave Barry might say), I worried that I might have gone overboard here. But the responses I've gotten so far allay that fear. One suggests that XBRL, if successful, will "create a master race of accountants / XML consultants." How's that for a B-movie concept!

Seriously, let's think about where the middle ground lies here. What the hammer is to the carpenter, the spreadsheet is to the accountant. In 2003, the dominant spreadsheet -- Microsoft Excel -- gained the ability not only to read and write XML, but also to guarantee fidelity to arbitrary schemas. We've yet to see the impact of that key development, but in the short run I expect we'll see a thousand flowers bloom as organizations, for their own purposes, begin to schematize their business information. In parallel, we're seeing the evolution of a global interconnected business network, implemented as a fabric of web services. The Platonic solution that XBRL envisions will, I'm guessing, more likely result from Darwinian forces now in play.

You'll schematize your own information because you can, and because it's intrinsically valuable to do so. What self-respecting accountant wouldn't want an automatic check on the validity of data? Meanwhile, your schematized information will be drawn inexorably into the interconnected business fabric. To survive in that ecosystem, you'll wind up transforming your stuff. The purpose of the transformation won't be to conform to a reporting specification, but rather to interoperate with the fabric. Proxies within the fabric will crank out the reports we need to see.

PS: Sorry about the title, but when the phrase "Attack of the killer accountants" came up blank on Google, I just had to claim it.

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