Insights for Procure-to-Pay and Finance Leaders

The hidden OASIS: a Universal Business Language

The more governments, networks and vendors embrace OASIS UBL as a common format, the easier it will be for all to interoperate. In Europe and elsewhere outside of North America, UBL is getting more traction and more acceptance.

In North America, I helped set up the ecosystem as a portal to information and announcements regarding the technology in an attempt to promote awareness and adoption of OASIS UBL there.

But awareness of the project is still continuing — and Tradeshift has invited me to contribute a guest post to this blog to let you know a little more what it’s all about. And why it’s so important.

The electronic business interaction

Two trading partners engage in business by exchanging information. When not done orally, a “business document” expressing that information is sent from one party to the other. The other party may then respond with another business document related to the first. Business is successfully accomplished when both parties agree upon what the other is expressing in their documents.

A human looking at a paper invoice or a PDF presentation can rely on traditional placement of information on the printed page and various labels and decorations to interpret the intended semantics of each part. Culturally, business people have come to easily find important business information that is placed somewhat arbitrarily on the printed page.

In contrast, some areas of the world rely on the United Nations Layout Key. Successfully standardized decades ago, this is one particular layout template so as to remove language barriers and forbid flexibility of position.

Deciphering the document

Human readers of such documents would know in exactly which boxes to look for particular information without having to interpret any perhaps foreign language labels on those boxes. That standard has worked very well for humans when crossing cultural divides with paper business documents.

Computers can also do a good job of analyzing a printed page and determining what information is found. Modern Optical Character Recognition (OCR) does exactly this and presents the analysis to the sender to verify that it has deduced the correct information from what it sees. Having learned what is where, other business documents with the same layout can then be processed in a likewise manner.

Making the exchange

When it comes time to exchange business information, the business document structure containing that information is expressed using XML, the Extensible Markup Language. This is an open computer data format much like “comma-separated values” and “tab-separated values” are open computer data formats familiar to those using spreadsheet tools.

XML’s expressiveness makes it ideal for structured information, arbitrarily labeling branches of a hierarchical tree and using context to syntactically identify the information found in a document. Two parties exchanging XML agree beforehand what semantics are assumed be the labels in different contexts and so can properly process the intent of each document.

The importance of openness

This openness is important because free and robust tools are available to work with XML. Should one use an opaque vendor-specific format private to a particular product, a trading partner may not have unencumbered access to the technology or tools with which to access that technology. Interoperability is challenged by having to support different technologies. Interoperability is enhanced by all parties using XML.

But just using XML is not a panacea. This openness can be abused if a vendor chooses XML but still skews the use of XML in a proprietary or closed fashion. Interoperability is again challenged when people use XML with different labels for different structures that represent the same (or even slightly different) business semantics represented by the syntax of other XML structures.

Business documents exchanged on the Tradeshift platform use the publicly-available, free-of-charges, standardized and extensible OASIS Universal Business Language (UBL) as the XML vocabulary structure. This openly-developed vocabulary of UBL is formally described by a suite of XML schemas. Schemas are used to validate that the document structure is correct in the use of branches and labels, and that the structure contents are themselves structured correctly at a character level. This allows trading partners exchanging documents to find the information in the business document structures and interpret the values

The future of UBL

The Tradeshift Network is a poster child for how to adopt UBL. Tradeshift’s commitment to having an open platform is demonstrated by adopting OASIS UBL as its business document XML vocabulary. And they followed the guidelines in taking advantage of the vocabulary to extend the set of business documents beyond what is available as standardized.

It is an example more organizations should follow.