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UBL Speaks Volumes About Doing Business

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.

Universal Business LanguageUBL 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 arise.

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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 Riders, 2001).

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