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What is XML, and Why It Matters to HR

January 31, 2002
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Imagine a solution to some of your company's most annoying data exchange woes. XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a new computer standard that is being touted as just that. It allows disparate systems to seamlessly exchange data and information.

Many large corporations, such as Cisco, Ford, and Lockheed Martin, have already made XML a key component of their business strategies. As the next wave of enterprise-wide management, communications, and commerce takes hold, and seamless exchange of data and information become standard operating procedure, more companies are expected to embrace XML.

And now that Microsoft has launched its XML-supporting "BizTalk Server," that's bound to happen sooner than later. Experts predict that it won't be long before XML becomes the primary standard for e-commerce and a key e-business enabler.

"The great integrator"
Yet what exactly does the emergence of XML mean for HR -- and specifically, the HRIS?

"Standard XML vocabularies for HR will lower integration costs and enable e-business," says Chuck Allen, director of the HR-XML Consortium, a non-profit standards group for HR data exchange.

Company HR systems and infrastructures usually hold a great deal of information contained within their boundaries. "XML can be the great integrator," says John Matranga, chief technology officer of Omicron Consulting and director of XMLabs, which designs and develops XML solutions for corporations and independent software developers.

There are many possibilities of exchange of information with the HR area of a company, explains Matranga. They include:

  • Organization of information for purchase, expense, and other approval cycles.

  • Integration of 401(k) information into an employee self-service portal.

  • Integration of personal information and certifications with a security system that allows access to valid certified resources.

  • Integration of payroll applications like Ceridian and ADP with real-time employee self-service.

Easier recruiting
XML should also improve the recruiting process. With XML, barriers to data interchange are eliminated. "Instead of having to integrate separately with each job board or recruiting venue, an employer will be able to make a single connection via the HR-XML standards," says Allen.

Resume builder tools that support the XML standard will allow the capture of rich Meta data about a job candidate's skills and interests. This will make it easier to search, analyze and compare candidates' qualifications, Allen explains.

With a common schema that can be adopted by the industry, the ability to exchange, search and manipulate resumes will be greatly enhanced, says Matranga.

"One example would be an internal recruiting system that could link to a marketplace, act on local resumes as well as remote resumes at the same time," he says.

As a result, recruiters would be able to take advantage of this common schema to help in recruiting in both private and open marketplaces.

More advantages
One of the best aspects about standard XML vocabularies for HR is that they do not necessarily require vendors to change how information is stored, says Allen. "HR-XML provides a neutral message between systems."

Systems are integrated through "loose coupling." Standard Application Programming Interface Definitions for processing XML have been widely implemented across all major programming environments, including Java, C++ and Visual Basic. "Thus, it should be relatively trivial for most HR vendors to move SML data in and out of their systems," he says.

More good news is that the XML learning curve is not too steep, according to Allen. "As one developer recently told me, 'XML was frightening at first, but frighteningly easy when it came time to do our first implementation,'" he says.

It's clear that XML expertise will soon become much in demand in corporate IT departments. XML is to data as HTML is to presentation for the Internet, says Matranga, who has authored several books on XML.

"If you believe that Internet and intranet technologies will be important, then knowledge of XML is just as important as fundamental understanding of HTML," says Matranga.

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