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.
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 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 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
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.
The online survey of UK top 50 companies revealed
the following in summary :
|Number of sites||Percentage (of 50)|
|Web sites (active)|
|Accounts or Reports on web
Interim Accounts (unaudited)
|Additional information on web|
|Use of graphics|
|Depth from home page
Link on page
One level down
Two levels down
More than two
(more detailed results of the survey can be found in Appendix
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
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 :
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
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.
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|
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 :
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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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