XML links technology’s offerings

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/21/2003

XML. Extensible Markup Language. It’s likely most HR practitioners have little, if any, idea what XML is or how it will affect what they do.

What it boils down to is this: while just about everything, including HR, has been going “e” in recent years there is a fundamental flaw in all those systems, software and programs that have been developed with the intent of improving business efficiency through automation.

Many of them “speak” different languages and therefore have difficulty communicating with each other. Sure information can be wired around the world, but often when it arrives at the receiving interface it stops. The data received then must be read and manually re-entered into the systems at that end.

Even if an organization has an ERP to move information across the enterprise it is likely language problems will arise with external clients, customers or in the case of HR, benefits providers, for example.

In the future, XML will tie together all those systems seamlessly so that all systems and databases will be able to understand the data they are sent. This is why XML has been described as the lingua franca of e-commerce.

The problem of system communication gaps arises from the large number of ways that data can be input for electronic storage and transfer, explained Shard McKee of Toronto-based i4i, an e-business solution provider that uses XML. For example “Ont.” might be used but a system may only read “Ontario.” Similarly with dates, a database that looks for July 25, 1973 doesn’t understand 07/25/73.

Resume management is a good example, said McKee. In an XML compatible world, when an organization received an e-mailed resume it would automatically update the company’s database, rather than having to manually enter the information. Champions of XML say that while it might not seem like a big deal, having to handle the data anymore than necessary actually represents a tremendous waste of resources.

The good news for all those HR people who still struggle with their e-mail address books is that the transition should be fairly painless and invisible. XML will change HR (and in fact any sector that has similar problems) in much the same way HTML changed the Web. HTML is the programming language of the Web and people can use the Web without the faintest notion of how to read HTML.

In fact, XML has been called a smarter cousin of HTML. “If all the data or content on the Web was being authored or created with XML, people could more easily find what they’re looking for,” McKee said.

Right now, when somebody does a search for Ginger Spice, they’re apt to get hits on the spice ginger, Ginger Rogers, Ginger Beach, the City of Ginger and so on. “That’s because the content is primarily ‘dumb,’” he said.

“On the other hand, XML is ‘smart’ content. It knows about itself. Even if it is buried deep within other documents or content, you would get that information and not information that sounds like your request. XML knows that you are looking for Ginger Spice and not the spice ginger.

Accenture, the global management consulting firm, was an early adapter of an XML-based system for scheduling. “Until we implemented this system… detailed information about our people’s skills and proficiencies tended to be in isolated databases,” said Mohit Sahgal, a senior manager at Accenture. “We now have a standard to manage skills and skill categories and to publish resumes to downstream applications and external partners.”

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