Talking Shop: The e-choreography of business collaboration lies in ebXML

The benefits of ebXML are explained

I am now officially old enough to witness technology recycle itself. The first two years of my career were spent as a business analyst for an EDI standards committee for the railroad industry. The railroads never got enough participation from each other and progress was slow. However, exchanging EDI messages to track a customer shipment would have added business value. Rather than a customer having to phone every railway to track his shipment, he could receive EDI messages informing him of his shipment’s location throughout the trip plan.

Ten years later, I just finished a Web services project in which my CIO, returning from an IT conference, asked me about ebXML. I printed everything I could find on the Internet about ebXML and sat by the pool and read it all. Within an hour, I was on the edge of my lawn chair. Everyone is hyping Web services, when Web services are just an enabler for the larger picture: automated, secure, and reliable B2B processes using an ebXML infrastructure. The promises of EDI are back with a vengeance!

From transactions to business transactions to business processes
The CIO and I sat down for a planning session on how we could use our service-oriented architecture for B2B. We conjectured that it was possible but that business processes could not be supported without a great deal of development on both sides. There are currently no standards in place, so a B2B transaction that works with one customer will not necessarily work with another. ebXML provides the global standard that simplifies transactions between multiple partners.

Business collaboration between companies can be conducted through Web sites. However, for complex business processes (such as selling products with complicated pricing models based on service levels, cost of delivery, and support), Web sites alone may not be enough. A good example is the purchasing of oil field products and services. This is not as simple as buying a book from Amazon.com, because it requires negotiations between both parties. ebXML facilitates this negotiation process through the exchange of messages such as EDI transactions.

DrillingDynamics sends OilExplore an invoice in the ebXML standard. The invoice and service delivery ticket are transmitted to DrillingDynamics invoice application (DDIA). DDIA processes the invoice and routes the invoice to the appropriate person for approval. Once the invoice is approved, it is uploaded to the financial system for payment. This entire process, which normally would take a day to complete, takes five seconds.

Business process management through ebXML
Business collaboration requires more than simply understanding its technical aspects. Instead, it is necessary to identify and map business processes. Back in my EDI days, I used a crude tool called ABC—a simplified precursor to Visio—to map out the business process. However, the ebXML standard provides a specification schema that facilitates choreography of business collaboration through transactions. The business process specification schema (BPSS) is based on the Unified Modeling Methodology (UMM). Oasis, the organization that hosts the ebXML initiative, also provides a worksheet for business process analysts to make sure processes conform to the BPSS.

If you are a business analyst, I would advise you to move into UML and read up on business process management. As companies begin adopting ebXML, your job will be to outline every idiosyncratic process the users conduct during a business transaction. In my case, it took me two days to get a high-level process, three days to finalize this process, and another three months to document every transaction that happens between sales, order management, engineering, manufacturing, and shipping. As tedious as this task was, I now understand the businesses company end-to-end. The business process document I produced as a result will be used in the ebXML registry to support the Collaboration Protocol Profile.

How can I partner with you...electronically?
A Collaboration Protocol Profile (CPP) is an XML document that describes a business’ collaboration capabilities. The CPP will need to be registered with an ebXML registry. Other companies will be able to search the registry and discover what transactions and business processes your company can perform electronically, and how they do so. For example, a sample CPP from an oil field services company may describe how the customer can communicate with the company to purchase drill bits.

A company that wants to become a trading partner with your company will build a Collaboration Protocol Agreement (CPA). This process is a joining of their CPP with yours to form an agreement on how to conduct the business transaction. Once the CPA has been ratified, the two companies will use the document to configure their business system interfaces (i.e., application Web services) and begin communicating through ebXML messaging service (ebMS). How many business relationships could you form if they only took minutes to develop?

What the world needs is a secure connection
ebMS is an extension of the SOAP with attachment specifications. However, security and reliability features have been added to foster B2B transactions. ebMS defines the packaging, routing, and transport facilities for the ebXML framework. In simple English, it is the envelope for EDI messages.

Remembering my EDI days, a company had to belong to an exclusive club of Fortune 500 companies to afford the specifications. Now, anyone with the drive can implement the ebMS specification, which does quite a thorough job of enabling global ecommerce through e-transactions.

Anyone involved in EDI will tell you how exciting a process it is. I remember the first time the other party responded to one of our transactions. There was complete jubilation in the tiny cubicle from our seven-member development team. It felt like we had just invented the telephone. ebXML will restore those great feelings again as your company’s barriers come down and new customers and suppliers are discovered.

The ability to find and form trading partnerships electronically will result in substantial cost savings for companies. Your company will be able to create searches of other companies that provide the services that you require. Integrating them into your business processes should be a seamless procedure. Should your company later decide to change its business focus, it should be as simple as performing a new search for a trading partner who is better aligned with your company’s new strategic vision.

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