Corporate Reporting and the Internet - a survey and commentary on the use of the WWW in corporate reporting in the UK and Finland.

Andrew Lymer,

The University of Birmingham, UK

&
Anders Tallberg,

Swedish School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland.

Paper presented at EAA'97, Graz, Austria. April 23-25th 1997.

Abstract

Commercial usage of the Internet has grown at a tremendous pace over the last three years ago from almost nothing to the point now where very few companies of any size do not have some sort of connection or 'presence' on the network. One of the most rapidly growing areas of the Internet is the WorldWideWeb which offers users facilities to access documents containing multimedia mixtures of text, graphics, sound and video in a standard format available to almost everyone to access and use. This particular technology has been successfully used for various forms of business communication, in particular for product/service marketing purposes, however, it has potential for use in other areas. One of these areas is corporate reporting and the web has been adopted for this purpose by a small, but rapidly expanding number of companies.

This paper introduces the potential of the web for corporate reporting by describing a framework of potential uses to which this technology could be put as a distribution medium for corporate information. It then surveys the current state of usage by companies based in two European countries to assess to what extent this potential has been taken up. The paper then addresses the issue of whether there are significant differences between the levels and types of usage by companies in these two countries at the current point in time. The paper concludes by suggesting some future directions in this area and details some of the constraints that need to be overcome for wider use of the technology and their implications for corporate reporting.

Introduction :

The provision of financial (and appropriate non-financial) information fulfils three roles for external users (ICAS 1988) :

Corporate Reporting is the process of communicating information (both financial and non-financial) about the resources and performance of the reporting entity (ASSC 1975). Fulfilling the apparently straightforward model of corporate reporting - corporations provide and users use - in practice actually leads to a great number of complex issues concerning problems such as what to report, when information should be reported, how to report, who is responsible for the reported information and so on. These questions have formed the basis of great national debates around the world and have been the subject of much academic research particularly since the late 1960s (for example AAA 1966, Kenley & Staubus 1972, Trueblood 1973, ASSC 1975, Carsberg, Hope & Scapens 1974, etc. ). The national debates have extended to international debates in more recent years with the growth of Multinational Enterprises and global capital markets broadening the reporting issues beyond solely national concerns.

The sophistication of business users of corporate information has also developed significantly over this period. This change has been driven by the wider change in society and supported by travel and communications revolutions over the same period. The impact of some of these issues on corporate reporting are explored in Wallman's Accounting Horizon articles (Wallman 1995,1996). These changes were central to the establishing by the AICPA in 1991 of a special committee to consider Financial Reporting. This group reported their concerns about the inadequacies and weaknesses of prevailing Corporate Reporting systems in November 1993 (Jenkins 1994). These changes were also key at the same time to the establishing of a new standard setting and monitoring environment in the UK under the Financial Reporting Council and the Accounting Standards Board which has led to the re-establishing of a drive for a conceptual framework to support the model of accounting.

In the case of the AICPA committee, they expressed concerns about the consequences of the existing system failing the users of the financial information it produced. They made specific reference to the effects of this failure on capital market efficiency, risk diversification constraints and investment liquidity issues as key factors leading to limited growth and competitiveness in the economies of the US (and likewise, by implication, for the UK and elsewhere).

The conclusions of this committee (Jenkins Committee 1993a,b) gave recommendations concerning the need for a mixed-attribute accounting model (historical and fair/current values) and the need for more forward looking information than existed in the current models in use. They also focused on the impacts the changes in technology was having on the uses to which financial information was being put and the potential it offered in refining the existing models of corporate reporting. They specifically made reference to the role communication technologies can play in fulfilling the business/investor demand for improved timeliness of information provision, the potential for increases in the volume and nature of information being delivered to users (particularly of non-financial measures of performance and indicators of future business opportunities and risks), the impact of globalisation on the needs of users and the costs of information provision. In each of these areas they suggest a possible technological solution to at least partially address the problems they highlight.

This paper discusses the applicability of the technology of global networks (in particular, the Internet) to this debate. Given the direction of at least some of the corporate reporting discussion, as indicated above, this paper argues that the Internet offers some technological solutions that have yet to be explored in much depth in the published literature, in particular, concerning the distribution constraints of existing models of corporate reporting. This paper focuses on the usefulness of the Internet to external users of financial information, though some mention of non-financial measures of performance is made in the survey section.

In the following section the Internet is briefly introduced as a technology and some comments are made as to its appropriateness for corporate reporting. The next section then details a survey of current usage of this technology by the top 50 UK companies and by the 72 companies listed on the Helsinki Stock Exchange. The choice of these two markets allows for some cross-European analysis to be performed in this area. This is followed by a commentary on the extent to which the potential of the Internet is being exploited by these firms at the present time. The paper concludes with some comments on the developments in the technology that may effect its appropriateness in this domain in the near future and gives some pointers as to future research issues to be addressed.

The Internet and the World Wide Web

The Internet is a global network of networks of computers that share a common transmission language to enable the sharing of data and applications on a wide scale. The network, though in existence in academia and the military since the late 1960's, has seen a rebirth with the arrival of business users in the early 1990's. Commercial usage of this network is now huge and growing very rapidly and is influencing many areas of business. The earliest commercial applications on the Internet were in the area of marketing and advertising and these continue to be the primary uses in many businesses but it has extended into a support technology for other businesses uses in some industries such as sales and order fulfilment.

The Internet is also beginning to be applied to other areas such as purchase/payment support (Electronic Data Interchange etc.), supporting financing of projects (e.g. online share prospectuses for companies with high Internet exposure such as the Internet Book Shop), for returns filing (the Inland Revenue has recently announced Self Employment notification - via form CWF1 - can now be electronically filed via the Internet and trials of Self Assessment form distribution have been attempted in various places around the UK - The SEC has required registered companies to supply electronic versions of their major reports since 1995 - SEC 1996, Lymer 1995) and in banking transactions (e.g. Barclays Merchant Services on-line Shopping Mall - Barclaysquare (http://www.itl.com/barclaysquare/) and Purchase On-line Systems).

The UK Government has also recently announced an agenda for wider use of the Internet as a contact and distribution mechanism for the various government departments. Their agenda for this 'Government Direct' project includes such things as legislation enforcement, tax returns, delivery of some government produced products (such as driving licenses) payments of grants and provision of public information.

All of these 'commercial' applications of the Internet suggest that it will continue to have an impact on business for the near future at least.

The Internet and Corporate Reporting

The debate as to whether or not there is a 'best way' for presenting accounting information is of real concern to many standard setters and such a debate is essential in supporting the value-based approach to accounting common in many countries at the moment (Sorter 1969).The development of an aggregation value-based accounting model was, to some degree, driven by the practical inadequacies of any other approach available at the time to actually deliver financial information in ways acceptable to both users and producers. Burton (19984) commented (as quoted in Borthick 1992):

'When most of us studies accounting the constraining variable was the availability of data not the need for it.. The cost of data accumulation and processing was so high and the time required to complete these activities so long it was simply not practical to think of such things as multiple presentations for different users or classifications that varied according to the use to which the data was put. We taught people about standardized balance sheets and income statements, and we argued over which method of cost allocation, if any, was best. We were also committed to a standard and arbitrary time period for data presentation'

To a degree the presence of the computer has addressed the collection and data availability constraints mentioned above. Borthick (92) goes on in her paper to list a possible researcher response needed to expand this debate and highlights (amongst others) 'the lack of software tools that enable casual and sophisticated computer users to get the information they want' and ' the difficulty of maintaining integrity and security in distributed data environments'.

What makes the Internet potentially useful in corporate reporting is the fact that it can be applied in addressing these issues. For example:

A number of other authors have hinted at the apparent appropriateness of the Internet to act as a delivery mechanism for disaggregated 'new look' accounting data. Recently, Schneider and Bowen (1997) provide a summary of the history of the debate of event versus value based accounting which comes to the conclusion that the Internet could be the mechanism for allowing a new form of financial reporting to develop. The issues of the potential of the Internet and the constraints of the technology for this purpose was also the subject of Xiao (1996). Other authors (such as Elliot 1992) have argued for the development of more IT-based solutions to the constraints of existing reporting models. A number of researchers have been working on database solutions over the last few years (including McCarthy 1979,1982, Weber 1986). The database models have not achieved wider acceptance so far partly because they lacked appropriate solutions to the dissemination problem. The Internet may take these models forward by providing a solution addressing this limitation.

The appropriateness of the Internet in this domain is empirically examined in the next section by assessing the current levels of adoption of this technology for voluntarily offering corporate reports in the UK and in Finland at the present time. In particular the following areas were addressed :

The issue of global 'reach' of corporate reporting and of jurisdictions of accounting regulation are issues of particular concern amongst standard setting bodies across the world at present. The proposals for global standards from the IASC and the 'rival' proposals under development from the G4 group (US, UK, Canadian and Australian National Standard Setting Bodies) has placed the issues of global harmonisation/standardisation centrally in the corporate reporting world over the last twelve months (Tweedie 1997). The Internet offers a potential delivery mechanism to enable standards to operate on a truly global scale in a way not possible before and adds impetus to these debates.

The Internet is primarily a communications medium and therefore facilitates changes in corporate reporting rather than causing them. The debate as to what, when, who and why (Wallman 1995) in accounting reporting and disclosure is not specifically addressed by the presence or other wise of the Internet - it is only really concerned with the where and how of communication reporting output. It enables debate in other areas rather than resolves many of the reporting issues that have been discussed over the last 40 years.

Details of the UK Survey of Company reporting on the Internet

Methodology :

A search was performed on the world wide web using a combination of knowledge of web sites and search tools (predominately the AltaVista tool - http://www.altavista.digital.com) to discover the 'home pages' (main web sites) of the top 50 companies on the UK Stock Exchange (top 50 by Market Capitalisation as at 15 December 1996 - Source Sunday Times - Business Section p5. 15.12.96). the searching was performed during the end of January and early February 1997 at various intervals in an attempt to discover as many sites as possible. The search was focused on stakeholder information in particular; annual reports and accounts and interim statements and other 'shareholder information' or non-financial performance measures. Links were followed in an attempt to discover the existence, or other wise, of such information to as deep a level as was considered necessary in each site. The pattern of being no more than two levels down from the home page, if there at all, was clear after visiting a handful of the sample used.

Results :

The online survey of UK top 50 companies revealed the following in summary :

Number of sitesPercentage (of 50)
Web sites (active)
46
92
Accounts or Reports on web

Full accounts

Before 1995

1995

1996

Summary Accounts

Before 1995

1995

1996

Interim Accounts (unaudited)

Before 1995

1995

1996

Highlights

26

7

0

6

6

6

0

1

6

13

0

7

14

16
52

14

0

12

12

12

0

2

12

26

0

14

28

32
Additional information on web
13
26
Use of graphics
10
20
Depth from home page

Link on page

One level down

Two levels down

More than two



15

10

1

0


30

20

2

0


(more detailed results of the survey can be found in Appendix A)

Discussion :

In general, it was found that the majority of the top 50 companies in the UK at the present time had world wide web sites (92%) that were active in promoting the business in some way or another. In almost all cases, these sites provided (at least) a range of advertising material, contact details and other promotion material about the company and its activities. Many companies were already making more use of the web than solely for advertising purposes.

The importance each company placed on the accessibility of accounting and financial reporting data is difficult to ascertain from the web site, but one surrogate measure that could be adopted is how deep they place the material within the web site - the deeper it is in the site, the harder it is to find and therefore, the 4lower the priority the data is likely to have received in the design of the site. In most cases (25 of the 26 who provided accounting data of some sort on the site) the data was to be found no deeper than one level down. This suggests those who put such data on their site consider it to be of significant interest to visitors to the site.

The most common data present on web sites were highlight information. Many companies have information going back at least to 1994 and some give full five or ten year highlights.

Of those putting fuller accounting data on their site, the most commonly found information was Interim (unaudited) statements; usually the latest piece of financial information available publicly from the company. This could be explained by companies attempting to distribute the latest information available about their activities. In at least two cases, (Unilever and ICI) the companies also made available full accounts in an unaudited (pre-audited) state.

A significant number supplied summary accounts of various forms and a smaller number giving full accounts (which included full notes). Of some interest may be the fact that no company gave an detailed information about the time before 1995 meaning volunteered data of this type currently has few possibilities for any detailed historical trend analysis.

Many companies took opportunity to make additional financial and non-financial performance and position data available via the web. Much of this information is likely to be made available in other (printed) forms, but the linking of the information with statutory accounts in this way is novel compared with virtually any other approach.

A broad sector analysis of the companies reveals the following :

Sites of particular interest :

Details of the Finnish Survey of Company reporting on the Internet

Methodology :

This part of the survey focused on the 72 companies listed on the Helsinki Stock Exchange. These companies, being on the average large (for Finland) and publicly listed, we would expect to lead rather than follow in matters concerning investor relations. Even though the companies can be categorized by industry and size we here treat them as one group, because any sub-classification would produce too few cases in each group to allow for meaningful between-groups comparisons.

Background "demographics" for the companies can be obtained from the Helsinki Stock Exchange at Error! Reference source not found. . They range in size, measured by turnover, from FIM tens of millions (for real estate investment companies) to FIM tens of billions (E.g. Nokia) ( one FIM being approximately .2 US dollars).

As with the UK survey, the first task was to find the WWW sites for the companies. As no acceptable index existed at the time the search was done by a simple algorithm. First we tried the 'default' address possibilities Error! Reference source not found., e.g. Error! Reference source not found. , Error! Reference source not found. , nokia.fi and nokia.com - in that order - for the case of Nokia. If that did not work, we consulted the directory of Finnish www servers at Error! Reference source not found. . We then consulted the company's most recent printed annual report. As a final resort, we used the name of the company as the key word for a search on Error! Reference source not found. , looking for likely home servers. This process netted, for the 72 HSE companies, 65 usable www servers (90.2%). A few companies could not be located at all on the web; in two cases we were greeted by a 'under-construction' message; and one server did exist but on attempting to access the site we discovered each page was surprisingly forbidden to us. The results of the search were, for the case of companies not found, updated as recently as mid-April 1997.

Results :

Having generated the list of sites, we proceeded to trawl for financial statements. Here's what we found, in order of increasing interest:

(A) No financial statements on the web: 7
(B) A few key ratios & numbers only: 6
(C) HSE bulletin with key ratios only: 8
(D) Summary financial statements only: 20
(E) Full IS&BS but no notes or supplements: 16
(F) Full financial statements, scanned: 5
(G) Full financial statements, Adobe pdf: 3
(H) Full financial statements, HTML:0
TOTAL:65

Discussion :

The cases with no financial statements (A) could be found consisted of two kinds of web sites: those with a "cover" home page only, and those which seemed to provide only marketing information and no corporate information whatsoever. Some companies provided a page of financial information where little more than turnover and net profits were given; these we classified as (B). Since our sample consisted of listed companies, some of them chose to reproduce the stock exchange bulletins where the earnings announcement was made in lieu of full financial statements. These we classified as (C), noting that the Helsinki Stock Exchange makes this information available on their web site for all the companies listed there.

Category (D) was the biggest, comprising companies that chose to provide some form of summarized financial statements, giving significantly less detail than those published in the annual report. The second biggest category was (E), where we find companies which somewhat annoyingly publish full income statements and balance sheets on their web site, but do not give the notes and supplements which would enable an analyst to make sense of the detail provided. Groups (D) and (E) together comprise close to 50% of the companies we looked at.

Five companies made their full financial statements, with notes and supplements, available as pictures scanned directly from the annual report. Three companies provided the equivalent using Adobe's pdf document format. Somewhat surprisingly. NO companies provided their full financial statements on the Web in HTML format. At the start of the investigation we had expected more would be in this category given the experience of the UK survey. The general impression, for those companies which provided at least some financial information on the Web, was a fairly conservative one. Hyperlinks were used very sparingly, if at all. The possibilities for "drill-down" and "collapse-expand" -types of displays of information afforded by frames and links were not utilized at all. The extreme cases, here, were of course the companies which simply provided scanned bitmap representations of the pages in their annual reports.

Even though 90% of the companies we looked at maintained Web sites, their potential for disseminating financial statements remains hugely underdeveloped. Why? Possible explanations include:

Effective Use of the Web ?

The introduction to this paper indicated areas in which the Internet, and in particular the web, may offer possibilities to enhance the provision of corporate reports to users. This section reviews the use of the web by the surveyed companies. Due to the very limited use of the web in the Finnish survey, the majority of comments made here refer to the more developed UK situation. In particular, this section discusses :

Graphics

The ability to enhance the presentation of performance information with graphics is one feature possible with the web. The most common use of graphics in company web sites was to repeat the diagrams that will have appeared in the conventionally published version of the financial performance information (for example, the sites of Zeneca, BT and Reuters). In the case of the latter two other charts of key data, such as graphics of ordinary share price fluctuations, are also given . Particularly good examples of the use of graphics however, can be seen in the sites of Marks and Spencer and Tesco where they are used to support the explanation of trend data, and in the Shell web site where they are used effectively to support the comparative analysis provided. The BAA site makes innovative use of graphics to display the signatures that would have appeared on the printed version of the accounts - though the legal status of these digital versions are unlikely to currently have the same effect as the printed versions of the signatures on the actual accounts. The digital signing of accounts may however, become important in the future.

Hyperlinks

The most common use of the hyperlinking feature of the web was to allow for interlinking of pages of information to support user determined access to the set of documents provided. The most straightforward of examples of this occurred in sites linking notes to the account information (e.g. Glaxo Wellcome, BT, SmithKline Beecham, Reuters, and Tesco). More imaginatively, the BAA site allowed for the integration of the notes with the accounts data in such a way as to allow for sequential viewing if required. Other sites used frames as an additional or separate navigation tool to conventional links (e.g. Royal Bank of Scotland, Shell, Reuters and Tesco - 1996 accounts only). Poor understanding of this feature, however, was also visible - for example, the BOC full accounts for 1995 appeared as one long document with no indexing or linkages.

Downloading of Data

In at least one case, the ability to download data for user analysis was supported such that the entire accounts and supporting information was easily accessible (for example, BP - data available as downloadable Lotus spreadsheet files). In other cases (notably ICI, Royal Sun Alliance and Marks and Spencer) the accounts were provided in Adobe format for downloading and local viewing. This method enables these companies to maintain some control over how the accounts data is delivered to the user.

Press Releases

Many of the sites made recent press releases available. In some cases these were linked to the accounts data. For example, ICI, HSBC, Shell, BP, BT, BAA, BSkyB, Vodafone etc.

Trend Data

It has been argued that one of the advantages of presentation offered by the web is the ability to provide more data to the user in explanation of company performance. A significant number of the companies supplying financial performance data over the web made use of this possibility to support the message of performance they wanted to promote. In some cases five year or longer reviews were given in various forms (data and graphics) e.g. National Power, Reed Elsevier, Shell, BOC. In the case of Shell, this trend data was supported by comparing performance against the benchmark of 1995 to indicate areas of strength and weakness over the period of review.

Other Jurisdiction Data

The ability of the web to reach beyond the UK may have suggested companies would think about the international audience for their corporate reports. This was, however, not the case in most companies who opted just to produce the accounting information for UK requirements. The exceptions were the companies who linked in US GAAP data with the UK accounts, or offered this as an alternative presentation format for users to see. Good examples of this were National Power, Cable & Wireless (including a UK/US reconciliation) , Reuters (with notes on US and UK GAAP differences and US GAAP summary) and BP. In the case of just one company (Unilever) a Dutch format was also added to the US/UK formats.

Dynamic Data Provision

The web offers the ability for rapid/instant updating facilities to enhance the provision of performance data. This ability has yet to be adopted by many UK companies on their web sites. The notable exceptions to this are Reuters and Glaxo Wellcome. In the case of the former, for whom at least part of their function is to deal in dynamic data provision, their site is regularly updated with changing share price information and other investor data in almost real time. The Glaxo Wellcome site has a link to the Financial Times site where 15 minute delayed stock prices for the company can be obtained.

Non-financial Performance Measures

Few sites took the opportunity to present performance measures other than financial ones. The exceptions were BAA who provided detailed summarises of independent assessments of quality of service monitoring ( such as cleanliness, comfort, congestion etc.) and lots of information about passenger throughput at their various airports. Shell also provided non-financial performance data in their various analysis of performance with their competitors. Their particular focus was on environmental impacts data. This type of analysis was also linked to the Cable & Wireless and National Power sites.

Miscellaneous

There were a number of additional elements attached to the corporate reports of individual sites. Three are worthy of mention. Vodafone provided a detailed analysis of their various investments in international telecommunication markets including lead-times for products to come to market in those countries and details of major competitors in each market in which Vodafone operated internationally. British Gas had recently split their site into two parts representing the split of the company into British Gas plc (Transco) and Centrica. In support of their combined accounts data they also provided full current cost accounting information - information which is available at this particular time in the development of the company due to their split. Reuters made a number of interesting uses of the web including placing copies of the Chairman's presentation to shareholders of 1996's annual reports for downloading and viewing.

The Future for Corporate Reporting on the Internet

The World Wide We, combined with other Internet tools, offers the possibility of a revolution in the delivery of corporate reports in the UK. The UK survey detailed above demonstrates that many of the top 50 companies at the present time have taken up the web as a promotion tool for their businesses and many are using it for the provision of reporting data in some form. However, the current level of usage of the technology is low in many cases - only the real innovators are making much use of the different nature of the web to conventional reporting mediums. In the Finnish cases, the use of the web was more limited with the majority of firms supplying little or no financial reporting information on their web sites.

The web offers a number of possible futures for corporate reporting. For example, it offers a mechanism to support more frequent reporting than the current quarterly reports distributed by most of the companies in the survey sample. If combined with a more events-based database reporting strategy it offers the possibility of perpetual reporting with access to real time data for users to analyse themselves rather than relying on delayed, aggregated data. The implications of such a move however, are significant. In particular, the concerns of data comparability, confidentiality, liability concerns over data ownership and use, integrity questions and the subject of quality (Wallman 1995) all become important issues to be resolved and managed. There is also some evidence (Jenkins 1994) that reporting more frequently than quarterly is not actually desired by users who are only interested in more frequent data if critical to their investment decisions.

The problem of 'information overload' would be a significant concern with more frequent/more dynamic publication of reporting information. There may be some possibilities for computer support to deal with this problem if the need arose for the management of this form of information flow between user and provider. Such technologies do exist and are being refined. There may also be the need for different presentation techniques if such models were adopted. Much research has been done in the area of database models (example include McCarthy 1979,82 etc.) including methods for improving the visualisation of data such as 3D modelling techniques.

Conclusion

This paper attempts to discuss the potential for the World-Wide Web as a delivery, communication mechanism in corporate reporting. There has been significant debate over the last 50 years as to how best to deal with the issue of corporate reporting to related parties. The current systems in place in many countries operates on a value-based strategy with varying levels of national and international regulations to structure the way in which this reporting is undertaken. An alternative 'events-based' strategy (Sorter 1969) has been receiving significant attention alongside the development of the conventional model and has becoming increasingly viable with the development of computer support for the reporting process and the management of its output for users. The Internet and the World Wide Web offer the possibility of a solution to the delivery/communication mechanism that has been missing from many of the database solutions suggested for new reporting models. This paper has addressed the issue of why this is a potentially important aspect of this debate.

The paper also contains an survey and commentary on the use of the World Wide Web for corporate reporting in the UK and Finland at the present time. It reports on a survey of the top 50 companies (by Market Capitalisation) in the UK and the 72 companies listed on the Helsinki Stock Exchange and demonstrates some usage of the web, but limited evidence of a change in strategy of reporting amongst these companies. It suggests that there exists, even without advances in the technology that are occurring all the time, a potential for improving corporate reporting models that are being missed by the largest UK and Finnish companies.

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