Insights for Procure-to-Pay and Finance Leaders

UBL is an ISO international standard, so now what?

This is the first in a series of articles by Jon Bosak, a member of Tradeshift’s Technical Advisory Board. Jon organized and led the OASIS UBL Technical Committee through the release of UBL 2.1 in 2013.

A major development in the technology of electronic commerce occurred late last month with the approval of UBL, the Universal Business Language, as an International Standard: ISO/IEC 19845:2015.

Of course, it’s a major development for Tradeshift, too; UBL is the XML format used for all of Tradeshift’s business messages. But the significance of UBL’s official standardization goes far beyond Tradeshift; it will shape how business is conducted in the digital age. Developed over 13 years by hundreds of leading business experts in a transparent standards-setting process within OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), UBL, as ISO/IEC 19845, now becomes the first open data format for the exchange of business documents to be ratified by two out of the three standards-setting bodies recognized by the World Trade Organization under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade.

Following on the European Commission’s 2014 approval of UBL for European public procurement, UBL’s achievement of ISO/IEC standardization paves the way for adoption by government agencies and other organizations that are required by law or policy to use de jure standards. As a result, Tradeshift users can expect easy data integration with taxation and procurement agencies as the new International Standard becomes widely deployed. And Tradeshift — a sponsor of the UBL effort and the first company to base a commercial cloud-based offering on the format — now leaps to a commanding first-mover lead in providing solutions based on ISO/IEC 19845, with the standard itself providing a rich array of predefined, easily convertible data structures designed to give adopters such as Tradeshift easy expansion from the base invoicing use case into every modality of modern business practice.

Driven by the powerful economic benefits of electronic invoicing, UBL has already become widely deployed in Europe. As ISO/IEC 19845, it will almost certainly become the standard for government invoicing and procurement in all of Europe and in many countries outside Europe as well, creating a comprehensive ecosystem of inexpensive off-the-shelf solutions and federated portals. Understanding UBL is, therefore, essential for anyone involved in designing business processes going forward. In this series of articles, I’ll review the history of UBL’s development, give a guided tour of its major features, explain its importance, and explore its larger implications for electronic commerce.

First, some background.

The Universal Business Language (UBL) arose from work undertaken in 1999-2000 by an initiative jointly headed by OASIS and the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT). Historically, OASIS is the creator of the Open Document Format (ODF) and other XML-based standards, and UN/CEFACT is the maintainer of UN/EDIFACT, the international EDI standard. The output of this joint initiative, called ebXML (ISO 15000), provided an almost complete standardized electronic business infrastructure, but it did not provide a standard data format for the messages themselves. Instead, ebXML anticipated an architecture in which many different XML dialects would be made to interoperate by means of a common abstract semantic layer whose development was left for a later phase.

Believing that this architecture for international trade should be complemented by a common XML standard, and fearing the de facto establishment of one manufacturer’s proprietary data format as that standard, a group of XML and business experts formed the OASIS Universal Business Language Technical Committee in 2001. The UBL TC began with the initial contribution of technical support and intellectual property from CommerceOne and SAP, an inheritance of work originally funded by the U.S. Government that incorporated experiences gained by several EDI and electronic commerce user communities. The UBL TC has continued since then to develop and release increasingly powerful and comprehensive standard schemas for business transactions. I will review those schemas in a coming article.

Arising from a dot-com era view of electronic commerce, the first UBL releases (0.7 in 2003 and 1.0 in 2004) focused on a generic buy-ship-invoice model with just eight standard document types. These early releases were received with great enthusiasm by several government procurement agencies, particularly in Denmark, which in 2005 (under the direction of the people who later founded Tradeshift) mandated UBL for all public-sector invoicing, saving the Danish economy an estimated 120 million euros annually.

With the added participation of many public sector procurement experts, UBL in version 2.0 (2006) grew to support most aspects of the post-award purchasing cycle, and in UBL 2.1 (2013) added schemas to support tendering, logistics, intermodal freight management, and other supply chain management functions. It’s important to note that these later additions were engineered to be completely backward-compatible with UBL 2.0 (2006) to guarantee seamless integration with UBL’s growing installed base.

As the product of an open, accountable, and royalty-free standards governance process, UBL is a natural fit for government agencies. Within a brief time following its introduction, Denmark was joined by government agencies in other northern European countries, which formed the Northern European Subset of UBL to encourage its adoption. UBL is now used routinely by government agencies for electronic invoicing across Europe as well as in Turkey, Peru, Colombia, and Panama. Increasingly these implementations apply to tax clearance invoices as well. Users of UBL therefore include many (or in some countries, all) of the entities that do business in the public sector — a huge number of organizations.

Europe is a world leader in its use of electronic invoicing, and UBL is the data content standard of both the e-PRIOR and PEPPOL (Pan-European Public Procurement Online) procurement programs used and sponsored by the European Commission. The PEPPOL community (OpenPEPPOL) now comprises over 100 Access Points established in 18 countries (including the U.S. and Canada). Deployments of PEPPOL currently include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and UK (NHS).

In keeping with the original vision of UBL as a standard basis for electronic business in general, UBL is now increasingly used by organizations whose scope extends into specific industry processes. These include the European Textile, Clothing, and Footwear industry group (eBiz-TCF) and Wehkamp, the largest online retailer in the Netherlands. UBL is also the standard chosen by the European eInvoice Service Providers Association (EESPA) for its interoperability agreements.

While most early adopters will primarily be interested in UBL’s support for common supply chain transactions, it shouldn’t be overlooked that it provides for a complete intermodal freight transportation management infrastructure as well. UBL messages were used as the basis for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Electronic Freight Management initiative, and UBL has also become foundational to several other efforts in the transport domain, including eFreight and iCargo (European Commission — DG MOVE), DTTN (Port of Hong Kong), and TradeNet (Port of Singapore). With ISO/IEC 19845, the international transport sector now has a natural successor to its UN/EDIFACT implementations.

Due to the widespread adoption of UBL, there are already native and third-party UBL interface add-ons to all major ERP platforms, including SAP and Oracle EBS. UBL has been chosen as the standard XML interface to several ERP packages, including Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2016, and many more can be expected to follow now that UBL has been declared an International Standard.

I’ll be presenting a brief overview of the immense resources of UBL itself in the next article in this series, but if you’d like a preview, download and unzip this file.

Now open the document UBL-2.1.pdf and take a look around. (Note that you can read the PDF by itself, but you have to have the entire contents of the zip file installed in order for all of the hyperlinks to work.)

What to read next

Part II

Part III

Part IV