Insights for Procure-to-Pay and Finance Leaders

UBL E-doc standard

Global e-document standard within reach

Guest post by Tim McGrath, Co-chair of the OASIS Universal Language Technical Committee (UBL)

Imagine if international freight did not use open standards: no international trade law, no common terminal (road, rail, port) facilities, no common road dimensions or rail gauges. We’d have dedicated and bespoke trucks and trains, and a variety of different sizes and types of boxes, pallets and containers and equipment to move them. In other words, a complete mess.

It may have taken a few centuries of evolution, but the international freight industry demonstrates that open standards make doing business easier for all players.

Organizations such as the World Trade Organization and ISO together, with guidance by governmental policies, have created an effective framework for moving freight that is open to any stakeholder; an environment where service providers compete on service and do not rely on locking in clients to specific technologies. One that promotes innovation and reduces costs, and offers long term security of infrastructure developments.

I always like the freight analogy when dealing with information exchange. I find it helpful for me to visualize intangible goods and services in the real world. Hence the thought exercise above.

Of course, this is over-simplifying the reality. But it should highlight that in information exchange for trade we have not realized the same level of “openness.”

An open framework for trade requires common agreement (i.e., standards) on several levels. Let’s generalize by calling these standard interfaces for infrastructure, operations and contents, which is the equivalent of the specifications of the dimensions for ships, cranes and containers.

The Internet has moved us along the evolutionary path with open standards for infrastructure so it is reasonable to claim we have created a global open network to support data exchange. But we have failed several times to converge on common operating systems or application interfaces to the point where no one seems to consider open systems as an achievable objective. The bizarre situation of Oracle pursuing Google over the Java APIs suggests we have not learnt much from history.

So what we are left with is open standards for content – but do we have open standards for data?

The freight equivalent is perhaps standardized shipping containers. Those familiar steel box shapes and sizes did not emerge from the standard, they came from a US trucking company (that’s why they’re measured in feet and inches) and were picked up by some port operators and shipping lines, and then became standardized internationally through the ISO. That brought governance to encourage more traction to the point where usage became universal.

I believe we have an opportunity to standardize on open data for trade with the OASIS Universal Business Language (UBL). The recent announcement of the European Commission to allow reference to UBL for public procurement complements it’s earlier approval as a draft international Standard by ISO-IEC JTC1. Together, these moves will encourage more traction to the point where UBL will become the open data standard for trade.

Significantly, Tradeshift uses UBL along with many other formats. This means that every piece of data that is exchanged is based on a standards-based semantics, open to any customer, integrator and app developer to access directly to integrate processes, support workflow decisions, archive, involve third parties, analyze, or whatever use case may be relevant.

Openness of trade data is inevitable (the alternatives are not sustainable in the long term) and with UBL this is now within our sights. With this we can realize the equivalent benefits for information exchange that containerization brought to freight exchange.

About the author

Tim McGrath has been a part of the international e-Business standards community for 15 years. He is the Co-chair of the OASIS Universal Language Technical Committee (UBL) and is currently working with several international projects covering public procurement, global supply chains, electronic invoicing, customs, freight and logistics, focusing on the issues of governance and management of interoperability through the use of open standards.

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