Creating the transparent corporation

Aaargh! Being on the road means I’m getting stimulated by lots of very interesting stuff, but it’s hard to find a moment free to blog it. I’ll try to get a few things down… Last week I got dragged in at the last moment as a pinch-hitter to speak at the KMWorld (Knowledge Management) conference, the largest in the field in the US, in San Jose. It was in the “ROI and Measuring Value” stream, which is not what I spent most of my time on, so I decided to title my talk “A Financial Markets Perspective on Intellectual Capital”. The KM crowd don’t tend to get exposed to finanial markets thinking much, so it’s worth giving some insight into how investors view non-financial or intangible indicators. The story in a nutshell is that it has become increasingly obvious that non-financial indicators are vital in getting an accurate picture of the value of a company. Employee turnover and changes in customer loyalty are just two examples of a myriad of things that investors would very likely want to know, but don’t get told.

Over the last 10 years many have attempted to build models that take into account these intangible indicators. After spending a lot of time several years ago looking closely at these issues, and talking with the top people in the field, I came to the conclusion that there was no simple answer. The heart of the issue is that investors use different valuation models—that is they assess the value of intangibles differently. That’s what makes a market. Steven Wallman, who was then SEC commissioner and now runs the very interesting customized mutual fund service foliofn, stated it clearly. Currently financial reports aggregate all of the vast amount of information inside a company. What is required is a shift to disaggregation of that information, so it is all available to everyone, who can then choose to aggregate it into the financial models of their choice. We have yet to see whether companies, large investors, or regulators will drive this shift, but 10 years is the sort of timeframe we have to expect for it to happen. What could help accelerate this dramatically is XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language), which is an XML-based standard for financial reporting that I discuss in Living Networks. This makes it very easy for analysts to take financial information into their own models. A recent study showed that analysts accounted for stock options in reports more accurately if they were presented in XBRL format rather than in a PDF. The beauty of XBRL is that it is extensible, so it can easily be used to report on non-financial indicators as well as financial ones. XBRL offers the promise of disaggregating information flows in company reporting. Investors will be far better informed, and be able to make decisions based on what is actually happening in the company. Earlier this week I met the executives at the American Institute of CPAs who are driving XBRL. They believe it will be far harder for the Enrons of this world to get away with what they did in an XBRL world. Companies will be far more transparent. And a little further down the track, we will shift to real-time reporting, when you can see what is happening in a company as it happens rather than two months after the end of the quarter. It’s hard to exaggerate the potential impact on how business is done. I will post my slides from my KMWorld presentation in the next couple of weeks, with a link from this article.