From here to compatibility: What XML can (and will) do for HR

New internet technology will revolutionize how HR transfers data
By Chuck Allen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/05/2003

M

ost HR professionals would agree that administrative processes are often much more complicated than they would like them to be. This often becomes most clear when it comes to technical and computer-related tasks.

Electronic information sometimes can’t be easily exchanged between computer applications, vendors and different hardware and software platforms. Data often has to be processed and tweaked to be used by clients or even by divisions within the same company. Sharing even basic HR data between separate companies is often next to impossible other than, of course, by re-keying the entire document.

The result is that too often HR ends up re-inventing the wheel.

Every minute spent modifying data or cutting and pasting is time away from more critical work. The end result can be a huge waste of productivity, time and money.

Such problems are fairly universal even in the modern Internet-equipped workplace, and accordingly, many industries are looking for solutions in emerging data exchange standards. XML, the Extensible Markup Language, is a new Internet technology that promises to revolutionize the way that dissimilar systems communicate.

The benefits of this system are enormous. Companies using XML will eliminate the troubles of transmitting data between dissimilar departments or external clients. Custom data feeds and custom integration between systems would be substantially eliminated. Data could easily be shared by the recruiting department and an outside benefits provider, for example.

XML was designed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to streamline data exchange across the Internet. It is closely related to HTML, the markup language used for Web page creation. A Web site written in HTML will be read by whichever browser you prefer; it doesn’t matter if the page was designed on a Mac, Windows or Linux computer. XML does the same thing: when data is written in XML, it can be transferred between applications, regardless of platform, software or any of the other factors that typically would mandate kneading the data into a useable format.

XML is a “self-describing system,” meaning that the data within the files is already defined. For instance, in a data file, an employee’s name, position and employee ID number are all tagged with terms defining each. When used by an application, the data will correctly read and define any tagged term and integrate that data into the software.

These data files can be infinitely packed with information, but applications can use only the attributes important to the task. Rather than forcing the information into a specific structure, implementers will be able to use standard programming interfaces to sort and extract relevant data, based exclusively on the terms used to label the various bits of information.

It might appear that creating an XML vocabulary for HR would be a simple process. Agreeing on terms like “job,” “employee” and “salary” seem straightforward enough. “When you examine the issues more closely, the challenges become apparent,” says Naomi Bloom, managing partner of HR consulting firm, Bloom & Wallace.

The problem is that many of the terms that HR departments typically use are seemingly interchangeable, but might carry specific meanings. Think about a term as deceptively simple as “employee,” then ask yourself, what’s an employee? When does “employee” in fact refer to a non-employee worker? What’s a position-seeker? What’s an applicant? A candidate? What are the differences, if any? Does the applicant transform into a candidate in the process of becoming an employee? And what if said candidate is applying to become a non-employee worker?

“Start applying these kinds of questions to other HR areas like compensation, benefits, job posting and other countries around the world, and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the task,” says Bloom. “Developing a common vocabulary is certainly not a simple process, but it is a necessary one.”

If XML is to live up to its full potential, universal standards need to be designed with input from all the sectors who work in and with HR departments.

Simply acknowledging that industry wide common ground must be established in order for XML to succeed, is only the first step when the industry has so many competing service providers and suppliers. Who decides what kind of data will be exchanged and how to describe it — vendors, one or two major players, industry associations?

Industry groups, or consortia, put the control of XML implementation in the hands of the community. Without this kind of framework and open involvement, industries face the risk of being forced to adopt XML standards that may serve the interests of a few influential vendors, while leaving the rest of the players at the mercy of those with the most resources.

“Other data-heavy industries, such as finance, insurance and medicine have formed associations dedicated to developing standards,” says Lon Pilot, director of the HR-XML Consortium. “HR is no exception.”

HR-XML is an independent, non-profit consortium created to develop and promote a standardized XML vocabulary. The consortium is focused on standards for cross-process objects, staffing, recruiting, compensations and benefits. It operates in an open and public process, and requires domain input for all its work. It focuses on communication between members rather than object modeling. HR-XML is open to all, and membership is composed of software vendors, employers, HR service suppliers, XML technology companies, non-profit HR-related associations and HR professionals. This diverse membership ensures that the vocabulary created will reflect the needs and interests of everyone who will be in contact with the system.

The HR-XML Consortium aims to build industry consensus from within. The consortium brings together key players in the industry — vendors, users, multinationals and start-ups — to work together to find the solutions the industry needs to stay competitive.

Now that new technology is changing the way we all think about networking, many of today’s outdated systems are being replaced. Thankfully, a consortium such as HR-XML ensures that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Industry-wide XML standards are on the horizon and when they go into effect, many of the problems synonymous with the modern workplace will become history.

Chuck Allen is director of the HR-XML Consortium, in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at chucka@hr-xml.org.

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