The current population of XBRL experts is inadequate to propel XBRL from being a niche standard into the global, ubiquitous standard for business reporting. In addition, there does not appear to be the paradigm shift required to create the population of experts that will be required. For XBRL, the expression "do what you've always done, get what you've always got" could not be truer, and will not build the community of experts that will be required for growth and success.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of XBRL experts, developers, users or individuals with a solid understanding of either XBRL or the specification(s). At a best guess, I would put the numbers between 500 and, being generous, 1000. But maybe I'm wrong, maybe there are up to 1500 XBRL experts.
There is little question that adoption of XBRL is entering a new phase, with the number of jurisdictions growing and the number of projects and mandates expanding almost by the month. The dream of ubiquity may not be as far away as the XBRL community thinks, nor as close as it hopes. XBRL is more than just a standard for the tagging of business information; it is a "new" technology that requires an expanding based of trained and knowledgeable professionals.
Where are they?
Type "XML" into the search box on Monster.com, and even in the Great Recession, you get over 4000 job postings. Type "XBRL", and you get 20 postings. For the standard that is going to take over the world of business reporting, there appears to be very little demand. Is this another chicken-and-egg situation? Certainly the training and information is available; all the major vendors provide training courses, XBRL International (XII) and various jurisdictions run conferences that usually include training sessions. And of course there is Charlie Hoffman's new book, XBRL for Dummies.
What is the demand?
Very clearly the increasing number of mandates should be driving an increase in both the need for XBRL talent, and the number of people making personal decisions to study XBRL. In the United States the SEC mandate is up and running. This should grow demand.
In the United Kingdom, the HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) mandate comes into force in early 2011, so one would expect to see a ramping up of demand for expertise now, to ensure software and processes are available to business to meet that mandate. Instead we tend to see articles in which accountants and software providers complain that they will not have time or resources to meet the mandate.
In Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Australia, France, Belgium and the Netherlands (to name just a subset) we see mandates or programs that will need experts to support.
A simple count of required public company filers in mandated jurisdictions gives us at least 20,000 companies that are or will be required to provide XBRL versions of financial statements. This number does not include the millions of non-public companies that will be required to provide XBRL based reports in various jurisdictions.
So clearly there is, or should be, a demand for at least an order of magnitude increase in the number of XBRL experts.
How to get there:
Clearly new thinking is required. The existing program of running conferences with the combined objectives of raising revenue and getting the word out is not working. The conferences have historically attracted up to 500 people, of which 50% are the same names. So twice annual international conferences are attracting maybe 500 new individuals to the XBRL community. National conferences seem to run at about the same numbers or less.
A goal of having a community of experts numbering in the 15,000 range will require far more training, greater outreach, and of course demand. And, certification. Unfortunately many XBRL jurisdictions have not been supportive of individual memberships. The argument at XBRL US and XII was two-fold; that individual members cost more to administer than we could ever charge, and that allowing individual members would stop large companies from becoming members - and it was the large companies that would pay the large dues. If the option existed for individual memberships, companies would have one or two people join. In the "early days" that might have been so. Today that is holding XBRL back.
Individual membership provides people with a personal and professional stake in the standard, and will support a massive growth in the total number of XBRL professionals. The current model of limiting (in many jurisdictions, but not all) membership to companies is acting as a break on wider adoption.
This means XBRL International will probably need to outsource management of any certification program. As an individual membership organization, I am confident that the AICPA, through its long association with XBRL, will be happy to provide a bid to manage any such program.
Certainly any certification program would imply an individual membership, or would certification be limited to individuals working for member organizaitons?
These are just a few steps that XII & XBRL jurisdictions could take:
1. XBRL International should be running "virtual conferences" with minimal or no registration fee. These "virtual conferences" should focus on basic and intermediate training.
2. The pool of recorded webinars, seminars, and video should be radically expanded. There exists a set of video from the main stage at the 19th XBRL conference in Paris in June 2009. This is a start. XII should be uploading training video and including it on the Education and Training page.
3. XII should establish an individual membership category to expand the number of individuals who see themselves as having a personal and professional link to the XBRL standard. This could be done in the same way that the IIA (Institute of Internal Auditors) and ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association) have national chapters, in which individuals have a local and international membership.
4. The XII concept of certification of XBRL professional should be studied. XII issued a survey on the value of such a certification. At the same time, a certification program with no one to certify would be a waste of time and money.