Building a Competitive Intelligence Group

Using XBRL-tagged data for competitive advantage.

While the SEC has allowed companies to take their time tagging financial data using XBRL standards, a private company, Edgar On-Line, is launching its own service giving subscribers access to a comprehensive set of XBRL data. The easy availability of this information makes it practical for corporations to use it for competitive analysis, operational benchmarking, sales intelligence, and so forth. Ventana Research advises CFOs to establish a competitive intelligence group, charged with providing business units and executives with actionable information about competitors, markets and suppliers. As this data is readily available now, we believe the ability to deliver these kinds of analyses has become a required core competence of the finance organization and will soon become a competitive requirement.

XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) is an open specification that uses XML-based data tags to describe financial statements for both public and private companies. Its purpose is to use accepted financial reporting standards and practices to simplify the preparation, exchange and analysis of financial statements. XBRL substantially increases the speed with which data can be acquired and analyzed, extends the depth of financial analyses with which organizations realistically can work and significantly reduces the chance of errors from mis-keying or mis-classifying data. We see XBRL having a significant impact on companies’ ability to gain deeper insight into competitors’ and customers’ operations. This information can be used for competitive assessments, operational benchmarking, sales planning and other activities. We advise finance organizations to establish a competitive intelligence unit responsible for providing information — about competitors, customers, markets, trends and so forth gleaned from XBRL data — to business units in a useful form.

While the United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has allowed companies to take their time adopting XBRL reporting (see “XBRL: Drag-to-Tag?,” 3/11/05), Edgar On-Line, an information provider, will shortly launch a product, I-Metrix, which will provide XBRL-tagged information from all 12,000 or so SEC filers, including widely held private companies and private firms with public debt instruments. Initially, Edgar On-Line intends to offer about 80% of the line-item information contained in the 10-K annual and 10-Q quarterly filings, a substantial increase in the depth of data currently accessible from third party information services. Within a year, the company intends to incorporate all line-item information, as well as certain common types of information included in the text of the reports or its footnotes.

Once acquired, companies will be able to use the XBRL data directly in Excel spreadsheets for analysis. Users can work with the original data, tagged with XBRL taxonomies. Other data services, which are not nearly as comprehensive, usually aggregate data using their own methodology to achieve comparability across companies. In our experience, this approach can be useful for high-level analysis but not for the sort of detailed, apples-to-apples examinations we expect competitive intelligence units would want to perform at all levels.

In our research on management and financial reporting we find companies do a good job of tracking basic internal financial data and, to some extent, operations data. However, they lag in collecting information about competitors’ performance. They may have access to third party market research or use market data services (such as McGraw Hill’s Dodge Database for US construction projects), but only a limited number collect actual data from that competitive intelligence goldmine, SEC filings.

Our research shows that a substantial majority of managers and employees believe the information they receive about competitors is inadequate. This is understandable, since in the past it was difficult to do consistently on an ongoing basis. The availability of easily accessible comprehensive data sets changes this and makes it imperative that companies learn how to use this information more effectively.

Ventana Research strongly advises CFOs to establish a competitive intelligence group immediately to develop and maintain the skills needed to use XBRL to rapidly acquire, analyze and provide relevant information to business units. In our judgment, this is precisely the type of service that distinguishes effective finance organizations from “bean counters.”

Robert Kugel is CFA, VP & Research Director - Financial Performance Management at Ventana Research.

Ventana Research is the preeminent research and advisory services firm helping our clients maximize stakeholder value with Performance Management throughout their organizations. Putting research in a business and IT context we provide insight and education on the best practices, methodologies and technologies that enable our clients to leverage assets to understand, optimize, and align strategies and processes to meet their goals and objectives.