Opportunities for using OASIS UBL and electronic services such as Tradeshift

G. Ken Holman, Crane Softwrights Ltd. - Founding member of link)

The Extensible Markup Language (XML) specification is an Internet standard used to express information in a digital form that is independent of any particular vocabulary, platform, system or computer language. Based on Unicode, it supports all the languages of the world.

The OASIS Universal Business Language (UBL) is a standard XML vocabulary suitable for expressing business documents such as invoices, purchase orders, waybills, etc. A UBL document is expressed using XML syntax, suitable for sending and receiving between disparate computers, large and small.

The Tradeshift over-the-Internet cloud-based software-as-a-service platform provides both browser access and program API access within a world-wide community of tenants sending and receiving business documents in OASIS UBL format. And to those outside that world-wide community by sending documents in PDF format. All invoicing-related document handling on Tradeshift is free of charge for all participants: all users can create, send, receive and manage their entire invoicing process without any Tradeshift costs. Whereas Facebook is a social network for friends, and LinkedIn is a social network for professionals, Tradeshift is a business social network for companies engaged in commerce with anyone.

This combination of XML, OASIS UBL and Tradeshift creates a global business document environment suitable for very small businesses, small- and medium-sized companies, very large corporations, organizations and governments and public institutions to interact with their trading partners of any size. Read below on what this combination of technologies means for each of these perspectives.

What this means to entrepreneurs, small startup companies and remote aboriginal and first-nation businesses

Do you have a very small business without any accounting software? Perhaps yours is an aboriginal-owned business without a personal computer, in a remote location, with only a community access point to the Internet. Perhaps yours is a brand new startup company with money invested in things other than business accounting software.

But you need to invoice your clients, yet you don't have the computer or the accounting software with which to do so. You don't care what format the documents are in, so all formats are available to choose from. Choosing a system that uses a standard format such as OASIS UBL will likely benefit the recipient of your electronic document.

At no charge you can create a profile at link) for your company and become a tenant on Tradeshift. Using this profile you can sign onto Tradeshift with any web browser (e.g. Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.). Using the web interface you can compose and send invoices for any other company at no cost to you or the recipient, whether they are a tenant on Tradeshift or not. When the recipient is on Tradeshift, your invoice is sent to their tenant account in OASIS UBL format; when the recipient of your invoice is not on Tradeshift, your invoice is sent to their email address in PDF format.

At any time you can monitor and manage the status of all your invoices sent from Tradeshift. Mark the ones that are paid; monitor the ones that are overdue. Discuss with other Tradeshift tenants the documents that are sent between accounts, as each document includes a discussion thread with which to have your discourse.

Run your entire invoicing process at no cost to you, producing professionally presented invoices to companies for payment.

Moreover, on Tradeshift you can arrange for payments to be handled through the system. Set up your PayPal information in your Tradeshift profile and offer your customers to pay you directly into your PayPal account.

What this means to small- and medium-sized companies

Like most small- and medium-sized companies, you may currently be handling your business documents using paper. An invoice is prepared in software, you render to a physical piece of paper, mail it off my snail mail and hope that the paper is properly handled by your trading partner. Hopefully, the information gets entered correctly, without any data entry mistakes. Hopefully, the information gets entered in a timely fashion, without delaying its processing for your payment.

There are many different vendors of accounting systems used by small- and medium-sized companies. Each of these vendors uses a different electronic format for business documents. Sending a document, say an invoice, from one company to another, perhaps by email. But can the trading partner receiving the document make sense of the electronic format?

Talk with your vendors regarding whether they support the OASIS UBL structures for their business document electronic formats. That is a big step in interoperability between software packages, regardless of how those documents are sent and received. But also ask them if they have or can add built-in API support for access to the Tradeshift cloud-based service for forwarding and downloading business documents through or from the Tradeshift network.

Convert your non-UBL formats to and from the UBL formats for transmission and reception by simple email or FTP/SFTP/SCP. Go further and write your own bridges to the free Tradeshift API using the open API documentation and secure OAuth protection.

If your invoice recipient is also on Tradeshift, you can initiate or respond to a discussion thread that is attached to every document sent on the system. Handle disputes, negotiate credits and maintain customer contact through the business documents you send and receive. Tradeshift already has over 60,000 registered tenants from over 190 countries, so your recipients might already be in the network.

Set up your company's PayPal information in your Tradeshift profile and offer your customers to pay you directly into your PayPal account.

What this means to large companies

Are you currently handling hundreds or thousands of paper invoices every month or year? How many staff are engaged in paper handling and data entry? Do you hire third parties to satisfy these needs? How much is it costing you to correct data entry errors?

Using an electronic format to receive business documents, such as invoices, ensures your system transcribes the invoice information precisely as it was received, with no manual intervention or opportunity for introducing errors.

Do you have hundreds or thousands of suppliers who need to invoice you from time to time? Receiving their invoices at no cost to you, in a consistent format, will reduce the overhead of dealing with the differences between so many suppliers. You can also opt for premium paid Tradeshift services such as accessing master data for each supplier, data that is maintained by the suppliers themselves. Provided they maintain their profile information in a timely fashion, the premium service delivers you the information you need to keep your supplier contact database up-to-date. For some organizations, this can be a regulatory requirement that currently costs time, money and people to maintain.

Do you have a proprietary accounting package with a custom electronic document format? OASIS UBL is in XML and there are open-source tools for writing transformations from XML to other formats, including other XML vocabularies. There are even third-party commercial software add-ons for products such as SAP that seamlessly bridge SAP to Tradeshift using OASIS UBL.

Do you have legacy back-end systems that need to be updated after running for many years with proprietary interfaces? As you migrate to new systems that are sending business documents between each other, consider using existing OASIS UBL document structures rather than reinventing the wheel and creating your own.

Do you have regular suppliers who are pre-approved for authorized payments of qualifying invoices? Check out link) where as a buyer you can offer different terms to your suppliers for instant payments on their invoices you authorize, thus giving them access to the funds in a timely fashion. Specify different discounts for different periods of time so that the supplier can weigh the discount they are willing to accept for the timeliness of being paid for the invoice.

What this means to municipalities and government organizations of all sizes

What obligations do you have to make invoicing simpler or more accessible for your many suppliers? A government organization needs to be fair and transparent, not biasing the ability for suppliers to invoice or to get paid for their invoices. The international standard OASIS UBL format is vendor independent without any bias to any software package or computer system your suppliers may be using. And those suppliers get the benefits described earlier based on their size and their use of the technologies.

Do you have reporting obligations, keeping track of your suppliers? Note above the discussion of premium paid services available to large companies on Tradeshift. These services may help you meet obligatory reporting requirements.

Government procurement at the federal level in a number of jurisdictions is based on OASIS UBL, including independent projects supporting the format in Peru, Panama, Turkey, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Spain. In countries where transparency and tax evasion are important issues, mandating the combination of OASIS UBL and Tradeshift is being considered as a way to mitigate the problems and restore lost government revenues.

Starting in February 2005 the Danish government mandated all invoices to the government be submitted in OASIS UBL format, or the government supplier will not get paid. This powerful incentive brought 175,000 companies to use OASIS UBL first with 30,000 government and public sector payees (“endpoints”), and then with each other. While estimates on the collective savings by Danish companies cannot readily be made, the government reported it, itself, saved a net of 500 million euros in the first five years according to page 2 of the link) government report. Long before Tradeshift was created, the Denmark government created their own national network on which business documents are transmitted between suppliers and government endpoints.

Meanwhile, twelve governments (Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the UK) are collaborating in the CEN workshop link) on Business Interoperability Interfaces where OASIS UBL is being used to implement the various profiles of choreographies of document exchange.

Worldwide the combination of OASIS UBL and Tradeshift is available off-the-shelf for governments of all sizes, satisfying the need for the communication network without having to build one's own. Organizations, such as the British National Health Service and the French and Irish governments have already become tenants on Tradeshift. Their suppliers are already using Tradeshift to compose and send invoices to them at no charge.

Also check out all of the features of OASIS UBL and Tradeshift for large companies as these are all available to government organizations as well.

A final comment regarding transportation documents

Not all of the UBL documents are related to procurement. Some of the documents are related to transportation, and international transportation organizations are collaborating on the use of UBL for multi-modal-related document exchange. Freight management documents are being used in European Commission initiatives named Freightwise, DiSCwise and e-Freight, in collaboration with the US Department of Transportation programme named Electronic Freight Management (EFM). This may be of interest to large organizations and government departments.

Where to go from here?

The OASIS Universal Business Language builds on XML to provide an off-the-shelf set of document structures for companies to use as electronic business documents in your legacy applications. In your future use of business documents, OASIS UBL provides the format and Tradeshift provides a network in which you can send and receive documents.

Visit link) for links to open information regarding the OASIS UBL specification, and to services such as Tradeshift that leverage OASIS UBL in their offering.

For an example of a production Tradeshift profile, visit the author's company's bona fide profile at link)

For an example of a sandbox Tradeshift profile, visit the author's test profile at link) and use the “Join Tradeshift” link at the bottom of the page to create your own sandbox account in which to play, learn more, and prototype your own invoicing solution using OASIS UBL and Tradeshift.

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