ACL vs IDEA
On August 22, 2008 the Houston branch of the TexasACL User Group had two guest speakers from Audimation introduce the group to their product IDEA. IDEA is a major competitor to ACL in the Generalized Audit Software category.
This essay is not intended to be a comprehensive comparison between ACL and IDEA, but rather a summary of some of the differences highlighted during the presentation. As the presentation came from Audimation employees many of the points will favor IDEA. When doing a product comparison between two pieces of software, one either needs to be an expert with both products or needs two experts with the software performing the same tasks side by side. When one does a presentation, one highlights the best feature of their product. Without a side-by-side comparison one does not get exposed to the weaknesses of each product.
With that in mind, here are some of the key differences:
1) When loading a file, IDEA automatically performs a statistics command on many of the key fields. While ACL allows for this to be performed at a click of a button, having the results already computed was nice. It is particularly nice that IDEA will automatically perform a CLASSIFY command on the month and day of week for various date fields. This allows for quick review of account activity. NOTE: David Coderre informed me that ACL can do this as well: Tools > Options > Table > Automatically Profile on Open
2) IDEA’s Import to Print functionality has some key advantages over ACL. IDEA’s interface mirrors that utilized by Monarch Pro. The advantages that IDEA has is that IDEA allows you to easily return to the model used to interpret files. With ACL, once you’ve defined a table, then you cannot return to the GUI to edit it. IMHO, this is almost a fatal flaw with ACL’s Import to Print functionality. IDEA also has a Verify function that validates that fields are not truncating data on the left or right of a defined field. On the flip side, IDEA does not have the ability to “EXCLUDE” records based upon certain criteria during the import phase. I also prefer the interface used by ACL when defining detail, header, and footer records. I find that ACL’s interface allows for more precise defining of fields and data. The representatives from IDEA bragged that their software was the best software for reading PdF files. As I had a file that Monarch Pro, ACL, and another OCR program couldn’t read, I put this claim to the test. IDEA was able to successful read the file without encountering the problem faced by ACL, Monarch, or the OCR program. IDEA’s interface with PdF files was significantly slower than ACL’s. While IDEA was loading the file, I was able to turn on my computer, load ACL, load the same PdF, and to start defining it. Of course, ACL was not able to correctly read the PdF while IDEA could.
3) IDEA’s ability to APPEND files is significantly better than ACL’s. First, IDEA will automatically adjust the field size to normalize data. With ACL, care has to be taken to ensure that the fields are the correct size. Second, IDEA allows the user to append up to 32000 characters worth of tables at one time. In otherwords, you can append 11000+ tables at once with one command. With ACL one has to perform this one at a time. Even in a script this has to be done one after another.
4) IDEA’s navigator has a solved a problem that many novice ACL users encounter. When working with tables, many ACL users have trouble determining which table is a child of another table. With IDEA the software will hold the results in an outline form showing the parent table. In other words, suppose you have Table_A. From Table_A you decide to extract all of the records that are after a certain date to Table_B. IDEA will put Table_B indented under table_A, thus indicating that Table_B was derived from Table_A. If you then, do a sort from Table_B to Table_C. Then Table_C will be indented off of table_B.
This structure makes it clear which tables were created first and from where they came. This can be an advantage for a novice user, for a more advanced user, I could see this becoming a hindrance.
5) IDEA’s JOIN function has a visual representation explaining what the results are when dealing with PRIMARY/SECONDARY tables matching or not matching. This is helpful for people not familiar with the various forms of joins, but isn’t that imporant once the user gains a modest understanding of joins.
6) IDEA’s GUI also allows for multiple data extracts at one time. While this functionality is doable via a script in ACL, one does not have to write a script for IDEA.
7) With IDEA, one can create editable fields that allows one to make comments in the ACL file directly. This saves one the effort of exporting to EXCEL and performing one’s testing in EXCEL. While ACL does allow (with version 9.0) the ability to create notes on a file, these notes are hidden unless opened. IDEA also has a “tickmark” editable field. This field will allow the user to mark various fields iwth blank, a check, an x, or a questionmark. NOTE: Dave asked about this on the ACL User Forum. While ACL does allow you to create a new field wherein you can edit it and edit it, IDEA will allow you to create multiple fields. This field is also accessible simply by clicking on the field like an Excel file. In ACL, you have to right click on the border.
From asking questions, there were a few distinct advantages that ACL offers over IDEA.
1) IDEA is based off of visual basic and is a “real” programming language. While this is of appeal to computer programmers, it is a disadvantage to non-programmers who might not be able to read visual basic. A non-programmer can pick up an ACL code and understand many of the commands/functions utilized. I do not believe this is as intuitive with IDEA. ACL code is, more concise. In fact, at one point, the presenter did a simple extract. She showed how IDEA captured the syntax of the code so that the code could be reused at a later date. I asked her if she could show us how to delete a specific field. She was unable to do so because she couldn’t read the code. Scripts are a key part of workpapers and management should be able to make heads or tails of the code. I would argue that everything test performed should be preserved in a script. With ACL, reading the code is much easier. For example, take a look at the code in ACL and IDEA for creating a running total. Without knowing anything about either of the codes, which one is more intuititve? If you aren’t writing scripts and performing your testing in scripts, then you aren’t utilizing the product fully. (NOTE: I didn’t pick the script because I knew ACL could do it easier, but rather because I knew that both ACL and IDEA had the same application and wanted to compare them.)
2) ACL allows the user to SET LOG or SET SESSION to create specific workpapers that capture only specific periods of execution. EG one can start a script and export the results of that script and only that script to a specific file. This creates concise easily readable workpapers. IDEA does not have this functionality. (This is a major advantage for ACL.)
3) IDEA sells this as an advantage, but many of their commands create new physical files. This in my opinion is a negative, I do not want scores of tables being created when they are not needed. ACL appears to be able to create virtual tables/relationships better. The advantage is twofold. First, if you are constantly creating new files, storage space becomes an issue. Second, creating new tables does take time.
In the end, technologically ACL and IDEA are two very similar programs with a lot of overlapping functionality. While this essay highlights more significant advantages of IDEA over ACL, it should not be read to mean that one product is superior to the other. Properly implemented both products will help improve audit efficeincy.
In the end, I believe that there are several intangible advantages that ACL has that IDEA cannot compete with. The three reasons that give ACL the nod over IDEA, are:
1) The ACL User Forum: ACL has a thriving online community that is available to help answer your questions. While calling technical support might provide an answer, the ACL User Forum will allow multiple experts to provide multiple answers to the same issue. Former ACL Trainers and developers are part of the ACL User Forum. David Coderre, the author of CAATTS and Other BEASTS and the GTAG on Continuous Monitoring, is one of the most prolific contributors to the forum. The advantage is that as a user one solution may be more applicable to your situation than another or you might understand one solution over another better. By getting input from multiple people, your ability to learn ACL is vastly enhanced. Technical support gives you one perception, not more.
2) ACL Proliferation: ACL is used in many more companies than IDEA. This means that ACL expertise is more transferable from company to company. This means that it is easier to find/hire people with ACL experience than IDEA. It also means that if you learn ACL, you will find a larger market than you with ACL expertise than you will with IDEA expertise.
3) ACL User Groups: IDEA is working on establishing user groups that meet once a year. ACL has numerous user groups that are meeting on a monthly (or quarterly) basis. This allows for the exchange of ideas and information between various users. I doubt if IDEA will ever be able to compete with ACL user groups, they simply do not have the necessary user base to start them around the world. The TexasACL User Group has been recognized by ACL as being a model group for other states/cities to emulate.