Making electronic business pay often means exchanging transactions with a large
number of trading partners, ss companies -- and this includes not-for profit
organizations and government agencies -- expand their stable of electronic
trading partners, however, they often discover a rude lesson: the complexity of
doing business expands with the number of trading partners.
The increasing headaches of managing large numbers of partners results from
every company being different. Even in the most regimented of industries, a lot
of suppliers to a large customer for example, will often mean dealing with
subtle differences in the payloads that customers deliver. And accomodating
those differences can mean developing one-off solutions, such as custom code,
to sort through the payloads for each trading partner, which can chew up any
savings from doing e-business in the first place.
A relatively new tool to meet this problem head-on is the
Content Assembly Mechanism or CAM, an OASIS standard since
2004 and in version 1.1 since February 2007.CAM specifies the creation of
templates for trading partners that identify those idiosyncracies in advance
and deliver an XML payload without the unwelcome surprises.
Industry-defined XML DTDs and schemas that have spread the use of XML in
business are to a large extent the cause of the problem.
In creating their specifications, industries build in a good deal of flexibiliy to accommodate
their industry members. Those members often represent a wide range of technical
capabilities, geographic locations, business practices, and regulatory
With all that flexibility, however, comes a lot of variation. Industry schemas,
as a result, give trading partners plenty of leeway in crafting their payloads.
The schemas often contain many features to meet a wide range of business
conditions, while the actual payloads use only a small subset of those
features. In other cases, validation rules apply largely to the structure of
the messages, specifyng dependencies and order of elements, leaving out much of
the message substance.
It`s all in the details
The details of messages, particularly in dynamic industries, may be kept in
industry code lists, maintained separately from the schema. This approach can
keep schema validation itself simple, as well as keep the "nouns" in the
industry payloads up-to-date. While these may all be solid technical and
business reasons for variability, the burden still falls on the message
recipient to make sense of the payloads.
CAM helps deal with this variability in a number of ways. CAM templates call on
the trading partners to define in advance their precise implementation of the
schemas, addressing such questions as ...
- Parts of the schema used
- Industry codes lists referenced
- Measurement systems employed (metric/English)
- Formats for dates (e.g., YYYYMMDD or DDMMYYYY)
- Local language translations
- Processing alternative sources, such Web forms or from mobile devices
At runtime, CAM can then serve as a validation check, not only of conformance
to the schema, but also to trading partner requirements. And CAM can provide
documentation of the interactions as part of an audit trail, if needed.
The more variability in the trading partner network, the more value CAM returns
for trading partners. British Telecom in the U.K., for example, uses CAM to
organize problem reports, which are not only detailed and complex, but also
change every few months. Samples of CAM have also appeared for applications as
diverse as automobile dealers, college and university administration, and
emergency medical messages.
An emerging application of CAM -- as recent as May 2011 -- is the Federal
Voting Assistance Program in the U.S. An
engineering standards working group has developed a use-case
for this program, to help American military and civilians serving overseas that
cast absentee ballots. In the use-case, CAM helps localize the distribution of
blank ballots to Americans serving overseas.
CAM technical committee offers introductory business and
technical brochures. An
open-source CAM processor also includes tutorials.
Disclosure: The chair of the OASIS CAM technical committee has co-authored a
book and several articles with the author of this essay.