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XML: True Collaboration

XML: True Collaboration

Lo and behold! XML has found a home and is beginning to make an impact on the enterprise. XML used to be considered fabulously interesting (like a degree in philosophy); now it's considered an essential item in everyone's bag of tools (like a wrench). As this technology hits the next level of maturity, it's time to focus on its unique business benefits.

Where Are We Now?
XML is firmly in the early adopter phase. That used to be the first phase, but clearly XML has existed for a long time in an academic phase. We've known how to spell "XML" for over three years and worshiped it for over two - but what was really going on?

XML, as it's used today, didn't evolve smoothly. It originated as a simplified version of SGML and was poorly understood during much of its infancy. Initial expectations were that it would be a publishing language or HTML on steroids, and its chief benefit would be better searching on the Web. Due to significant exploration and academic-style research to find the biggest bang for the buck, XML didn't take that road.

Yes, XML can be thought of as the oat bran for whatever ails you, but it's launching its strongest foothold in business-to-business collaboration. XML is no longer thought of in terms of its technological features but its business benefits. They completely leverage the unique and revolutionary features that account for the posthype success.

In the academic phase XML was used primarily by intellectual geeks, daring independent software vendors and boutique system integrators who had the freedom to experiment without the risk of significant long-term consequences. Its exposure to corporate managers was limited to a skeptical reading that provided fodder for cocktail parties. Now that XML has graduated from just features to real benefits, the early adopters within the enterprise are starting to put XML to the test.

True Collaboration
Businesses and diverse departments have worked together for years - often electronically. So how is true collaboration (or collaborative commerce, c-commerce - choose your favorite buzz word) different?

Compare how you interact with the guys down the hall versus co-workers in remote offices. Remember the old adage, "There's nothing like being there"? When you have the luxury of proximity, you tend to develop and depend on an ad hoc relationship. You share unpredictable things at unpredictable times. Remote relationships tend to be more formal, and electronic relationships are more formal still. You share predetermined business documents, contact each other when there's an official reason, and engage in a predictable and often rigid protocol.

Look in your file cabinet and see what goes into a typical manila folder - all kinds of odd stuff. When working with others in a paper-based world, you have the luxury of ad hoc contributions beyond just business documents, such as photographs, cocktail napkin diagrams and additional notes in the margins. It's sharing these bits and shreds of unusual, informal and unpredictable content that enables the richest form of collaboration.

The difference between the electronic interaction that's been possible in the past and the collaboration envisioned for the future is the ability to interact and share information with as much freedom and ease as you can with office mates.

As industries become increasingly competitive, companies are looking to cut costs and improve services like never before. Every ounce of efficiency has to be squeezed out and every option delivered. This often requires resources beyond the enterprise, and enabling the extraprise to work as productively as entities within the four walls of your company is what true collaboration is all about.

This is the business benefit that XML uniquely enables.

ML: Enabling Collaborative Commerce
By now most of us are familiar with XML's basic features. Yes, it's simple, standard and platform independent, but those aren't revolutionary features. They're requirements of any business-to-business data format. These features alone can't make collaborative commerce possible. If that were so, EDI would have done the job. Arguably, EDI isn't simple or Web-based, but evolution could have taken care of those deficiencies. No, something else enables XML to revolutionize interaction.

XML possesses two killer features. One, it's flexible enough to handle any information no matter how unwieldy, oddly structured or bizarre. Two, it's extensibility enables it to handle the unpredictable as well as on-the-fly, ad hoc additions. (Refer to my earlier column entitled "XML: It's the 'X' that Matters" in the premier issue of XML-J [Vol. 1, issue 1] for an in-depth diatribe on the undeniable virtues of extensibility.) These features are truly new to the enterprise.

This is where XML makes the jump from a neat idea with an academic following to an essential technology with a mission. If the essence of collaboration is being able to share rich content (an elegant way of saying "Any kind of crap you can imagine") and to interact unpredictably (freedom from schema!), then it's clear how XML fits in. It facilitates the electronic equivalent of throwing a sketch over a cubical wall or scribbling a note of wisdom on a folder.

Consider a few business-to-business examples. If you share an insurance form with another business, you may also want to include a photograph or medical data. An RFP may depend on CAD diagrams or architectural plans. A business document could be returned with an additional section inserted in the middle. Another partner may need to read that document too - but isn't privy to the new section. In general, XML lets you think about collaboration, not as sharing rigid, predetermined business documents, but as sharing a dynamic manila folder filled with rich content.

Because of XML, that folder is flexible enough to contain any type of information, and extensible enough to easily manage all value-add opportunities. This is that next level of collaboration.

Making It Happen
Having XML somewhere in your building is not enough to ensure that your infrastructure will deliver on these benefits. XML needs to be in certain places at certain times - having an adapter on your firewall that translates everything into XML at the last minute isn't enough. Keep asking yourself about your strategy: Can you share what you want, when you want, how you want?

What's required is true management of XML in the middle tier or - to stretch the metaphor - a filing cabinet for all the manila folders. It's this filing cabinet - or repository - that makes it possible to add, link and personalize information. This is what allows you to go beyond sharing just the predefined invoice, RFP or PO and collaborate electronically.

Collaboration is what XML brings to the business community. It has found an application - the first of many - that puts its unique features to the test.

More Stories By Coco Jaenicke

Coco Jaenicke was, until recently, the XML evangelist and director of product marketing for eXcelon, the industry's first application development environment for building and deploying e-business applications. She is a member of XML-J's Editorial Advisory Board.

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