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XML Standards for Global Customer Information Management

  Article published in DM Review Magazine
May 2002 Issue
  By Ram Kumar

The data needed to support real-time e-business lives in legacy, back- office systems. Comprehensive customer management solutions are required to access data in a variety of disparate systems to achieve a complete picture of the customers and their relationships.

XML plays a significant role in the efforts many companies are undertaking to integrate e-business and customer information management applications with their enterprise systems. Companies can define XML grammars that deal with customer information management. These can be used to interface data between systems in a more open and simplified way, saving time and reducing error, and to represent customer data in a common language across the different lines of business. However, vendor-proprietary XML grammars can cause problems when data is exchanged between systems. Special XML converters are needed to move data, which defeats the purpose of using XML in the first place.

The best solution would be to develop an open, vendor-neutral, application-independent, industry-standard XML language to describe global customers ?- that is, regardless of the geography or culture in which the data resides. The term "global" is very important, particularly when it comes to e-business and e-CRM business models, where organizations deal with customers on a worldwide basis. Global Web customers require 24x7 service. They have language differences, multiple data and shipping formats, and vast differences in demographics, tastes, preferences and so on.


OASIS, The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (www.oasis-open.org) is the international, not-for-profit consortium that advances electronic business by promoting open collaborative development of interoperability specifications. It is supported by many of the world's leading stakeholders in data interchange. This includes more than 350 vendors (such as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and Sun) and major information users (such as Boeing, Airbus and international postal authorities). Along with the United Nations, OASIS is the founder and sponsor of ebXML, a global framework for electronic business data exchange.

Due to the lack of XML standards for managing customer information and exchange/interchange that is open, application-independent and vendor-neutral, approximately two years ago, the Customer Information Quality (CIQ) Technical Committee of OASIS accepted the challenge of building such standards. The committee has now developed three powerful XML languages for customer information management and exchange ?- xNAL, xCIL and xCRL. They are briefly described in the following sections.

Extensible Name and Address Language (xNAL)

A customer could be a person or an organization. Customer data consists of many components; however, name and address are still the key identifiers of a customer. Name and address data is very difficult to manage. It is volatile -? customers come and go, addresses change and names change. It is often cluttered or incorrect when entered. Name and address fields on data entry screens are usually free format and ripe for users to enter comments without any edits. Name and address entry is subjective; the same information may be written a number of different ways. These problems are further compounded by the different geographic and cultural contexts of name and address data in a global market.

Fitting more than 200 countries into a unified format is no easy task. Countries have very different address formats. Some use street names for addressing; others don't. Some use island names; others don't. The format must allow these different types of addresses and, at the same time, provide a consistent and easy-to-use format.

There are a number of name and address standards available throughout the world. These have been designed to meet particular business requirements -? for example, the expedient delivery of mail. This has generally meant that while a particular standard is appropriate for the purpose for which it was designed, it is frequently not suitable for general use. Moreover, the existing standards are not designed to manage name and address data of all countries.

xNAL is the first XML standard for name and address data management. It is application-independent, vendor-neutral, open and, most importantly, truly global. The language has been designed to manage name and address data of any country in great detail and has been cleverly designed to provide the much-needed flexibility in its vocabulary to handle customer name and address information for any simple application (e.g., simple name and address registration to complex application name and address validation and verification). Consider the following example:

Mr. Ram Kumar
EGIS Building, Level 12,
67 Albert Avenue
Chatswood, NSW 2067, Australia

This data represented in xNAL is shown in Figure 1 and could be used by a simple user-registration system.

Figure 1: xNAL for Simple System

A complex application, such as a name and address validation system, needs the customer data parsed and represented as individual data elements at the most granular level of representation. Figure 2 shows that type of representation in xNAL.

Figure 2: xNAL for a Complex Application

xNAL provides the flexibility to represent customer name only, address only or both in XML. This has been achieved by componentizing xNAL into two independent XML languages -? extensible name language (xNL) and extensible address language (xAL). The xNAL standard has been implemented as DTD, W3C Schema and RELAX NG Schema.

Extensible Customer Information Language (xCIL)

Although name and address data is the key identifier of a customer, other customer- centric data is important to uniquely identify the customer. Customer addresses frequently change, and it is not trivial to link the customer across multiple addresses using only name information. For example, a customer can have two completely different addresses, and it would be almost impossible to uniquely identify the customer by name alone. Customer-centric data (such as telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, account numbers, etc.) will be necessary to uniquely identify customers and their relationships.

xCIL is the XML standard for managing customer-centric data in addition to name and address. It is designed to be application-independent, vendor-neutral, open and, most importantly, truly global. xCIL uses xNAL for representing customer name-and-address data. xCIL is defined as a separate standard to enable simplicity and flexibility in the usage of the different CIQ standards. For example, with applications that deal with address validation only, xAL can be used. xCIL also provides the flexibility to represent customer data at an abstract or a detailed level.

Extensible Customer Representation Language (xCRL)

The key to building effective customer relationships is the achievement of a 360-degree view of a customer across different lines of business within an organization. Customer relationships could be categorized as follows:

  • Organization-to-organization relationship.
  • Organization-to- person relationship.
  • Person-to- person relationship.

An organization-to-organization relationship could be parent/subsidiary, trading partners, alliance partners or customers of an organization.

An organization-to-person relationship could be organization structure, contacts, account management or business relationship (such as "doing business as").

A person-to-person relationship could be a household relationship, a personal relationship, a dependency relationship or a formal relationship (such as doctor/patient or coach/player).

xCRL is the XML standard for managing customer relationship data and is designed to be application-independent, vendor-neutral, open and, most importantly, truly global. xCRL uses xNAL for representing customer name and address data and xCIL for representing other customer information. xCRL is also defined as a separate standard to enable simplicity and flexibility in the usage of the CIQ standards and provides the flexibility to represent customer data at an abstract or a detailed level.

Open Invitation to Contribute

It is inevitable that there will be multiple organizations and consortiums influencing XML, given the strategic emphasis that vendors are placing on this new technology. Avoiding duplicity of standards work is the major criterion for the success and acceptance of any standards work. The CIQ group realizes this, and the efforts of the committee and its significant achievements have attracted many groups working on customer information standards. Formal relationships are now being established.

Further information about these standards is available from OASIS: www.oasis- open.org/committees/ciq. The CIQ committee is open to suggestions/criticisms/comments. The group welcomes new members willing to share their expertise and contribute to building these truly unique and global XML-based customer information management standards.

XML is Not a Silver Bullet

The greatest benefit of XML lies in its ability to manage islands of data using a common data format that is understandable to any processes/systems/businesses that use it for data representation, data exchange/interchange and application integration.

Unfortunately, many are of the opinion that XML is a "silver bullet" and an industry standard that will automatically and magically solve all data quality, data interchange/exchange and integration problems within and across enterprises. It will not.

XML's greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. It is so flexible that different vocabularies/structures can be written to define the same type of data. XML will succeed only when businesses or processes agree on a standard XML vocabulary/definition. Implementers of XML often forget this. Consequently, they create more islands of data while trying to overcome the original "islands of data" problem. Companies and industry groups continue to propose a variety of different XML extensions, standards and protocols in competition with each other and without any cooperation. The biggest obstacle in the path of XML's success is lack of industry collaboration and agreement on common vertical and horizontal industry standards. Without cooperation and collaboration, eXtensible markup language could easily become an "eXtensively misused language."


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...

Ram Kumar is the chief technologist and architect of MSI Business Solutions Pty. Ltd, Australia, a one-to-one business solutions and consulting company that assists its clients in becoming customer-centric through appropriately tailored strategies, services and enabling technologies. Kumar's contribution to MSI includes defining IT business strategies, technology management, architecture, design and consulting in the areas of open business view, information foundation, e-business, business and technical interoperability (B2B and B2C) frameworks, XML technologies and customer information quality management. Kumar is the founding chairman of the Customer Information Quality Technical Committee of OASIS and can be reached at rkumar@msi.com.au.

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