Ten (or So) Ways to Flatten the XBRL Learning Curve

In This Chapter

Gathering information from others Expanding your knowledge by doing
If you’ve read other parts of this topic, and you know what the XBRL elephant looks like, you can break down that big elephant into smaller pieces that you can eat one piece at a time. (If you can’t identify that elephant in a lineup, see Part I.) Some people out there will tell you about shortcuts to understanding and working with XBRL. Don’t listen to them — there are no shortcuts. Work is required.
What you don’t need to be doing is working in the wrong areas; heck, you have plenty of work to do in the right areas! The key to learning what you need is to understand enough about XBRL to know when someone is leading you down the correct path. To achieve this goal, you have to know what you want and need to accomplish. That is why understanding XBRL’s big picture first is so critical: It helps you understand what you can, and cannot, get from XBRL.
This chapter helps you flatten the XBRL learning curve. It won’t make learning XBRL effortless, particularly in the current phase of XBRL’s maturity. But it can help minimize wheel spinning, find starting points, and, combined with the other chapters in this topic, get on a path to where you want to arrive: solving real business problems. This chapter is important for a simple reason: It will save you time and money.

Gaining an Important Perspective on Learning

You can learn by making your own mistakes or from the mistakes others make. Another term for learning from your own mistakes is creativity. Being creative is a good thing. However, many people make the mistake of confusing creativity with control. We point out this misconception because we don’t want you to fall into this trap.
True creativity is incredibly expensive most of the time. Creativity involves trying many things, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and moving toward your goal. Sometimes you’re lucky and stumble on something that works sooner rather than later. But the laws of probability are at play here. On average, creating something new takes a lot of time and effort.
There can be a better way. Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” But don’t misinterpret what we’re saying. You have to stay within the law — don’t be calling us if you go to jail for violating someone’s license agreement or copyright. In that case, call your attorney. (We hope you have a good one.)
Learning from an approach taken by a public taxonomy, such as the US GAAP Taxonomy, by reading its architecture document (see http://xbrl.us/ Documents/SECOFM-USGAAPT-Architecture-20080428.pdf)and using those ideas is a good practice. (To avoid having to type these long links, This takes you to a landing page where you can click the link you need.) Copying that same document and holding it out as your work is definitely not a good idea — and it’s plagiarism.
Step one to implementing XBRL is understanding what has already been done, figuring out what works well, and seeing whether you can apply a similar solution to your set of circumstances. If you can, don’t reinvent the wheel. An amazing amount of sharing goes on because of the Web; take advantage of it.

Use your skills, experiences, and other background to build the better mousetrap!

The trick is to understand when you’re reinventing the wheel and when you’re building a better mousetrap. The “If it’s not invented here, it’s no good” attitude can be expensive. Not considering the truly specific needs you have in your situation, though, can also be expensive. Balance is the key.

Building a Prototype or Proof of Concept

One of the best ways to truly understand XBRL is to build a prototype or proof of concept. We provide enough of a starting point in this topic to help you realize many of the things XBRL may be able to do for you. We point out many tasks others use XBRL for and where you may be able to apply XBRL in your organization. We even walk you through some tasks step by step. You can take all these things and come up with a prototype or proof-of-concept solution to a specific business problem you have.
Many software vendors make trial versions of their software available for free for a limited time period. Take advantage of that offer: You don’t have to re-create existing functionality in your prototype or proof of concept; just create the pieces that don’t exist for your specific needs. And definitely start small. Trying to build too big of a prototype or proof of concept won’t generally get you where you need to be. You may be surprised how much this process of prototyping a solution helps you understand and grasp the realities of working with XBRL.
Another way of building a prototype can be significantly easier than building your own prototype, under the right circumstances — reverse-engineer someone else’s prototype, which may be available publically. The prototype you reverse-engineer doesn’t even need to be exactly the prototype you’d create, but if it’s close enough, you can use this process of working backward to jump-start your learning process. That starting point can allow your prototype or proof of concept project to move along faster.
You don’t have to go through this process alone! Plenty of experts, such as consultants and software vendors, can help you. Of course, you’ll likely need at least a small budget for your prototype or proof of concept project, but a hired gun, when used correctly, can really put you on the express bus to XBRL understanding.

Taking Advantage of the Expertise of Hired Guns

Consultants. Maybe you don’t like using consultants, but the truth is that in today’s world, most projects can’t live without them. If used correctly, consultants can be extremely valuable resources. If used incorrectly, you may as well be throwing your money down the drain.
An old joke helps make this point: A man was having trouble with his car, so he took it to a mechanic. He asked the mechanic how much it would cost to fix the car, and the mechanic said he couldn’t really say without looking at the car. The man agreed, and the mechanic opened the hood, looked around for about a minute, twisted a fitting on the engine, and solved the problem. The owner of the car told the mechanic that it was a miracle, and he wanted the mechanic to bill him for what it was worth to fix the problem. The mechanic gave the owner a bill for $250. The car owner was aghast and said to the mechanic, “$250? It took you only a minute to twist a fitting.” The mechanic replied, “Yes, it took me about 2 seconds to twist the fitting actually, it took me 58 seconds to look at what was going on, and it took me 30 years of experience to understand which fitting I needed to twist and in what direction.” The owner paid the bill.
Sometimes fiddling around trying to figure out what XBRL fitting to twist can cost significantly more than forking out some of your hard-earned money to have an experienced guide walk you through the process. Consultants can be a good investment if used in the correct manner.
We don’t recommend paying a consultant to do all the work; having them do all the work, without you gaining any XBRL knowledge, doesn’t help you learn. Use the consulting fees you pay as an investment in training for you and your organization. This approach isn’t appropriate in all situations, but for certain types of projects, even just a day with a consultant with the right expertise can be invaluable.
Two key words here are “right experience.” Chapter 12 has a list of things to help you identify whether the consultant you’re considering forking out dough to hire truly has the right stuff, so to speak.

Working with Software Vendors

In many cases, software vendors are a good source of XBRL expertise. Be sure to read the previous section about using hired guns and realize that many software vendors have a professional-service aspect to their organization that works with their customers to implement solutions, learn about customer problems, and then cycle what they learn back in to software products and features for their particular company. Seek out these professional services consultants.
Although most software vendors offer trial software products to their customers, learning how to use a software product effectively can still be quite challenging. It’s particularly an issue if you’re shopping around for software and trying to pick the best one.
Don’t get roped into letting software vendors give you only their prepared demos that they’ve orchestrated to perfection. Let them give their demos but then ask good questions, such as the ones we list in Chapter 14. Your job is to be a knowledgeable customer. Do your homework and be prepared!
Another thing to do is ask around. Talk with others who have used the software vendors you’re considering or their competitors. A great place to do research is at XBRL conferences. XBRL International typically holds two conferences per year, and most XBRL vendors have a booth in them or at least attend. Attending conferences can be an expensive initial investment, but if you’re really jumping into XBRL in a big way, the investment is worth it and generally results in a reduction of total cost. See the XBRL International Web site (http://xbrl.org) for conference locations and dates.

Taking a Class

We have only a limited number of pages to communicate the key aspects of XBRL in this topic, which is why we call it a starting point. Sometimes, group interaction helps you understand certain areas of XBRL. More and more classes are being offered on XBRL these days. These classes come in all sorts of formats, including one- or two-hour webinars, one- or two-day events, training offered at conferences, and even weeklong boot camps that offer total immersion into the world of XBRL.
Every class is different, and the proper class and format for you depends on your needs. Consider this list of possible XBRL training needs:
You can’t learn much about XBRL in an hour, a day, or even two days, for that matter. Particularly at this level of XBRL’s maturity, figuring out the right match in what is offered and what you need can be challenging. Focus is key. We know that you don’t have weeks to take out of your daily lives to learn about XBRL or any other topic. Learn in bite-size chunks.
As XBRL matures, software will get better, more topics will be written, more examples and sample implementations will exist, and more consultants will know about XBRL. All these changes can help reduce what you need to understand about XBRL in order to make it do what you need. Just realize where XBRL is in its life cycle and adjust your expectations accordingly.
If you want to learn about XBRL in depth, don’t necessarily do it all at once. Sometimes in-depth saturation training can provide a significant jumpstart. On the other hand, taking a class, applying your skills, learning from applying your skills, and then taking another class after you’ve gotten your hands dirty a bit can be a good approach. Mixing classroom
training and real-world understanding from on-the-job training or supported study is a good approach, especially in the area of something like XBRL taxonomy creation.
A particular problem for business users these days is that training can be too technical due to the state of XBRL software applications and business people who are capable of delivering training. A business person in a technical-oriented class can be frustrating. Realize that as software improves and as more business-oriented people understand XBRL, classes will become less technical. Many times, the participants in classes are a mixture of business-oriented and technical-oriented participants. Meeting the needs of both groups at the same time can be hard.

Asking Questions on Mailing Lists

A great way to learn is to get on mailing lists. Yahoo! (http://groups. yahoo.com/search?query=XBRL) hosts more than 100 XBRL-related mailing lists. Two particularly good mailing lists are
XBRL-public mailing list (http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/ group/xbrl-public): This list is for general XBRL information. Ask any question you want. It has about 1,500 members, and anyone can become a member. Don’t really like asking questions? No worries. This list has been active for more than nine years, so it has a significant archive of information you can dig into.
XBRL-dev mailing list (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/ xbrl-dev): This list is where XBRL geeks, many of them software vendors, hang out. These technical people tend to be open, helpful, friendly, and patient and enjoy sharing information. This list has about 500 members and has been active for about five years. It’s technical, but you can really ask any question you want.
Although these two lists are probably the most active and general lists, many other XBRL mailing lists exist. For starters, Google Groups (http://groups. google.com) has another 18 XBRL-related lists.

Writing a White Paper

“What!?” you may ask? “You want me to write a white paper on XBRL, and I don’t even know anything about XBRL! Are you crazy?” Actually, no, we’re not crazy. A great way to learn about something is to write about it.
Believe it or not, no one was born being an XBRL expert. Everyone started somewhere. So, yeah, write a white paper. Here are some ideas that can help you with that endeavor:
‘ Collaborate with someone who does know XBRL. If you have an area of expertise but don’t know XBRL, and you want to see how XBRL will impact that area, collaborate with an XBRL expert.
Copy what other domains have done. We’re not really talking about stealing. For example, the CFA Institute, an association of investment professionals, wrote a white paper to explain XBRL to its members (see
www.cfapubs.org/toc/ccb/2 00 9/20 0 9/3?cookieSet=1). You can use ideas from that white paper to help you explain XBRL to your domain, your organization, or some other group.
Write a university research paper. Students and professors, what a great opportunity to write about how the things we do will be transformed by XBRL!

Helping on a Public XBRL

Taxonomy Project

Although time-consuming, a good way to learn is to get involved in a public XBRL taxonomy-creation project. Often, volunteer members of XBRL International staff these projects. Some volunteers have little or no experience with XBRL, but others can have significant XBRL expertise. Maybe you’ll start by doing grunt work, but after you pay your dues, so to speak, being involved in this type of project can be a significant learning opportunity.
Don’t sell yourself short or be scared because you don’t feel you have enough knowledge about XBRL to bring to a project. Remember, your task is to learn about XBRL. What you do have is business-domain expertise. That business-domain knowledge is a critical aspect of every XBRL project, and if you have it, you’re bringing a lot to the party. When the XBRL discussions start, stay tuned in. Keep something in the back of your mind. How long did it take for you to accumulate your knowledge of your business domain? We assure you that it would take significantly longer for someone with technical knowledge of XBRL to learn the business-domain knowledge that you possess than it would for you to learn about XBRL.
XBRL International (www.xbrl.org) is a good place to seek out public taxonomy projects. Another good place to look is the XBRL jurisdictions, which you can locate via XBRL International. Look around, and you’ll find them.
Can’t find a public XBRL taxonomy project? Start one! Sure, why not? You may create something useful for your area of domain expertise, or you may spark others to help you create an XBRL taxonomy for a specific business domain. Creating an XBRL taxonomy too much to bite off? Maybe create a set of label resources for a business domain within a specific language that you know. Or, create business rules or a definition linkbase turning a taxonomy into an ontology. You may be surprised at all the opportunities that exist!

Joining an XBRL International Working Group

Another way to get experience and learn is to join XBRL International and then get on one (or more) of the working groups. Again, don’t forget about all the business domain expertise that you bring to the table (see preceding section). Don’t be scared that you don’t know enough about XBRL to contribute. The experience you get is the payment you receive: expertise in XBRL.
Much of the work of XBRL International is done by volunteers contributing to achieve some specific task within a working group. Some tasks are large; some tasks are small. Many XBRL jurisdictions likewise have working groups. A good place to start your search is at the XBRL International Web site (www.

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