Companies that do business electronically -- even small businesses -- discover
they deal in multiple markets and thus need to speak various business
languages, That`s a key reason for an OASIS specification called the
Universal Business Language (UBL): a common set of standard electronic
business documents in XML to bridge those business semantic divides.
For example, a manufacturer of auto parts may use a set of electronic purchase
orders, ship notices, and invoices for its customers in the automobile
industry. But that same manufacturer needs to ship its items through
third-party trucking or rail companies. The manufacturer’s transactions with
transportation companies will likely use the same internal data to describe the
parts as in the auto industry transactions, but the company must now find a way
to match its data to the transportation industry`s documents and language.
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Plus, if the auto parts company wants to expand into new line of business -- say
military vehicles -- then another set of business semantics is involved. The
business processes for defense authorities buying parts for Humvees will be
much different than those for auto parts stores needing Ford F-150 truck parts.
Thus, the parts manufacturer will need yet another set of business documents
and terminology, even though the company`s internal data and terminology may be
the same as for civilian vehicles.
offers a library of 64 standard documents in XML that tap into three decades of
experience with electronic data interchange (EDI) to reflect real-life business
processes. As EDI had done, UBL makes it possible for supply chain partners to
reduce costs and errors of paper or fax business documents. But unlike EDI, UBL
documents also allow for companies to map their data into processes and
transactions outside a company`s core activities -- such as transportation,
finance, and government -- or new lines of business should the opportunities
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UBL grew out of the Common Business Language XML documents of the late 1990s,
but added the ebXML Core Components specifications, which provide neutral
semantic references for common business data. Thus UBL provides not only
standard sets of business documents, but the ability for companies to match
their business data to those of other companies at a fine level of detail.
More common documents, elements, and business processes
The first UBL specifications, published by OASIS in 2004, had eight business
documents and 600 common elements covering transactions from orders to despatch
advice (ship notices in North America), and invoices. The latest UBL version,
2.1, has 64 documents and more than 2,000 elements in its library, expanding
into catalog, transportation, and financial processes.
Note that the number of UBL documents is now 8 times as large as the original,
while the number of common elements increased 3.3 times. This growth rate
difference indicates that the common elements are reused increasingly
throughout the documents, which means supply chain partners can reuse more of
their data in UBL documents.
Many of UBL`s newer documents are for government procurements, particularly in
Europe. Government ministries in Denmark were among the first UBL adopters, as
well as procurement authorities in Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. Finance,
transportation, and utilities agencies in several European countries have
signed on to UBL as well. UBL adoption in North America has been slower than in
Europe, but the U.S. Department of Transportation`s
Electronic Freight Managementprogram is a visible example.
UBL is an open specification, available free of charge and may be used without
royalties. It has has an active user community under
XML.org, including lists of software and services that support UBL.
Alan Kotok is editor and publisher of the
Science Business news blog, and author, with David Webber, of
ebXML: The New Global Standard for Doing Business on The Internet (New