Laurel and Hardy. Peanut butter and jelly. EDI and XML?
Though the two electronic trading formats have been cast as mortal foes, the standards bodies behind them have agreed to create a set of shared business processes that could ultimately create standards harmony in the world of e-commerce.
The Accredited Standards Committee X12 and the UN/EDIFACT Working Group, the standards bodies behind the world's two most widely used flavors of electronic data interchange (EDI), announced last week that they will join the Electronic Business XML (ebXML) initiative to establish a set of core components for global business-process integration.
Business processes are functions that occur after data is exchanged from company to company. Much of e-commerce to date has focused on companies being able to talk with one another, but the EDI and ebXML bodies said they hope to standardize much of the way companies work with one another during the next two years.
"I never understood the us-against-them assumptions," said David Barkley, director of e-commerce relationships at home mortgage provider Freddie Mac in McLean, Virginia, and chairman of ASC X12. "We need to complement each other, not head off in different directions."
Ralph Berwanger is the ambassador for standards at e-commerce network provider bTrade Inc. in Irving, Texas, and a participant in both the ASC X12 and ebXML standards bodies. He stressed that unless EDI and XML can find points of convergence, a new standard will develop during the next 10 years and "we'll have to reinvent the wheel again."
By October, the EDI and XML standards groups plan to identify a set of business-process core components that can be standardized. Berwanger noted that ASC X12 has 313 different business-process messages, from invoices to health care claims to requests for queries, that could be recast in XML.
Transportation, finance and other industry groups will work on identifying key process issues that could then be folded into a set of global core components, which will take about two years, according to Berwanger.
"The key is that if you get the business processes defined, then they can function separate from the syntax of the messages," he said.
"Collaborative commerce is not going to work without something like this," said Bob McCullough, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Kip Martin, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, called business-process definitions a way "to move beyond technology and get at the way companies are run."
Martin also said that common ASC X12/XML processes would allow companies to better tie together their legacy systems.
"Nobody would realistically replace their legacy systems solely for the purpose of e-commerce, but they do need to figure out a way of using those systems as technology continues to change," he said.