Making XML Work in Business
XML was developed to meet the real needs of real organizations, and its novelty and its promise have attracted plenty of attention from technical and business people. For XML to continue to thrive, however, it needs to deliver real value to companies and organizations, particularly in these tough economic times. Several of the sessions at IDEAlliance's recent XML 2001 conference showed how XML can deliver for businesses. But the discussions also suggested that the number of organizations able to take immediate advantage of XML is still quite small, and most businesses will probably not see benefits from XML until further down the road.
Information Management, The Early Payoff
According to several presentations at XML 2001, organizations can get the biggest returns from applying XML to their information management practices. However, the number of enterprises likely to benefit in the short term from this kind of investment in XML appears quite small.
Una Kearns of Documentum outlined the information management challenges faced by both public and private organizations. These organizations collect and generate massive amounts of information – what we now call content – such as catalogs, contracts, requests-for-proposals, product specifications, news items, marketing data, technical documentation, financial analyst reports. The content produced and collected in individual departments often ends up managed differently in various departments, which makes an overall organization-wide strategy difficult.
Despite the difficulty of the task, organizations able to tame this beast can reap significant rewards. The most immediate savings come from reusing information across divisional boundaries. For example, capturing a company’s product specifications in a way that can be reused directly by its marketing and service documents save the marketing and service people hours and days of time recreating that information and reduces the potential for inconsistencies and errors. Many companies have yet to take these first basic steps, so companies that produce, report, or manage large volumes of content have a good opportunity to reap significant savings early on.
The idea of information reuse is hardly new, especially to participants from earlier XML and SGML conferences, but the relative simplicity of XML should make it more palatable to larger numbers of companies and organizations. The ability with XML to identify key variables and identify them with common tags can make information in one department meaningful to other departments. As long as the people creating the content understand the idea – in itself no small accomplishment, as discussed in other XML 2001 sessions – a company has a fighting chance to save significant time and money managing its content.
Heavy Trucks, Heavy Benefits
Jonathan Parsons of XyEnterprise talked about how one of its clients, Freightliner, uses XML to manage content. Freightliner, a division of Daimler Chrysler, manufactures heavy commercial trucks and buses, as well as specialized heavy trucks such as fire engines and military vehicles. As one might expect, such vehicles are very expensive. Throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, jurisdictions impose weight and height limits on trucks, as well as regulate the nature of the loads hauled by these vehicles. Thus Freightliner needs to customize its trucks for each customer.
This requirement means Freightliner has a complex information management challenge, as well as a demanding manufacturing task. The company configures each vehicle at the time of manufacture, which means Freightliner needs to capture data on each component in the vehicle and its properties from the marketing staff and transmit those specifications precisely to the manufacturing division. The information management challenge gets compounded by the need for customized owner manuals and service bulletins for each vehicle. With each unit of output customized for the buyer, there is no margin for error anywhere in this process.
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Freightliner decomposes each vehicle into components and assigns a unique identifier – what it calls a "datacode element" – to each component. Each component then gets customized with attributes that reflect the product lines. These contextualized components (as they call them) are associated with pricing and weight data as needed. The components then get collected and assembled into documents – price quotations, manufacturing specifications, owners’ manuals, service bulletins – at the time of their publication.
For Freightliner, XML (and SGML before it) provides business value by making it possible for the company do business in this way. Without XML the company would likely find it financially impossible to design and deliver customized vehicles, along with the manuals and after-sales support. This case offers perhaps an extreme but valid case of how XML delivers value immediately to the company. Freightliner had used SGML previously for producing its service manuals, but the introduction of XML enabled the company to expand the idea of contextualized components to its marketing and manufacturing operations, thus decreasing the time needed for configuring and manufacturing the vehicle. Parsons said Freightliner plans to expand the concept to involve its supply chain partners.