XML and Belly Buttons: How to “Sell” XML

Anyone who works with XML has probably had to “sell” the idea of using the standard instead of alternative approaches, whether as an internal evangelist of XML or in a formal sales role. We have developed some pretty convincing arguments, such as automating redundant processes, quality checking and validation of content, reuse of content using a single source publishing approach, and so on. These types of benefits are easily understood by the technical documentation department or developers and administrators in the IT group. And they are easy arguments to make.

Even so, that leaves a lot of people who can benefit from the technology but may never need know that XML is part of the solution. The rest of the enterprise may not be in tune with the challenges faced by the documentation department, and instead focus on other aspects of running a business, like customer support, manufacturing, fulfillment, or finance, etc.. If you tell them the software solution you want to buy has “XML Inside” they may stare off into space and let their eyes glaze over, even fall asleep. But if you tell them you have a way to reduce expensive customer support phone calls by making improvements to their public-facing Web content and capabilities, you might get more of their attention.

I have been around the XML community for a very long time, and we tend to look into our belly buttons for the meaning of XML. This is often doen at the expense of looking around us and seeing what problems are out there before we start talking about solutions to apply to them. Everything looks like a nail because we have this really nifty hammer called XML. But when CD-ROMs were introduced, people didn’t run around talking about the benefits of ISO 9660 (the standard that dictates how data is written to a CD). Okay they did at first to other technologists and executives in big companies adopting the standard, but rarely did the end consumer hear about the standard. Instead, we talked about the massive increase in data storage, and the flexibility of a consistent data storage format across operating systems. So we need to remember that XML is not what we want to accomplish, but rather how we may get things done to meet our goals. Therefore, we need to understand and describe our requirements in terms of these business drivers, not the tools we use to address them.

Part of the problem is that there are several potential audiences for the XML evangelism message, each with their own set of concerns and domain-specific challenges. End users want the ability to get the work out the door in a timely manner, at the right quality level, and that the tools are easy to use. Line Managers may add sensitivity to pricing, performance, maintenance and deployment costs, etc. These types of concerns I would classify as tactical departmental concerns focusing on operational efficiency (bottom line).

Meanwhile Product Managers, Sales, Customer Service, Fulfillment, Finance, etc. are more geared toward enterprise goals and strategies such as reducing product support costs, and increasing revenue, in addition to operational efficiency. Even stated goals like synchronizing releases of software and documentation, making data more flexible and robust to enable new Web and mobile delivery options, are really only supporting the efforts to achieve the first two objectives of better customer service and increased sales, which I would classify as strategic enterprise concerns.

The deft XML evangelist, to succeed in the enterprise discussion, needs to know about a lot more than the technology and processes in the documentation department, or he or she will be limited to tactical, incremental improvements. The boss may want, instead, to focus on how the data can be improved to make robust Web content that can be dynamically assembled according to the viewer’s profile. Or how critical updates can be delivered electronically and as fast as possible, while the complete collection of information is prepared for more time consuming, but equally valuable printed delivery in a multi-volume set of books. Or how content can be queried, rearranged, reformatted and delivered in a completely new way to increase revenue. Or how a business system can automatically generate financial reporting information in a form accurate and suitable enough for submission to the government, but without the army of documentation labor used previously.

At Gilbane we often talk about the maturity of XML approaches, not unlike the maturity model for software. We haven’t finalized a spectrum of maturity levels yet, but I think of XML applications as ad hoc, departmental, and enterprise in nature. Ad hoc is where someone decides to use an XML format for a simple process, maybe configuration files driving printers or other applications. Often XML is adopted with no formal training and little knowledge outside of the domain in which it is being applied.

Departmental applications tend to focus on operational efficiency, especially as it relates to creating and distributing textual content. Departmental applications are governed by a single department head but may interact with other groups and delivery feeds, but can standalone in their own environment.  An enterprise application of XML would need governance from several departments or information partners, and would focus on customer or compliance facing issues and possibly growth of the business. They tend to have to work within a broader framework of applications and standards.

Each of these three application types requires different planning and justification. For ad hoc use of XML it is usually up to the individual developer to decide if XML is the right format, if a schema will be needed, and what the markup and data model are, etc. Very little “selling” is needed here except as friendly debate between developers, architects and line managers. Usually these applications can be tweaked and changed easily with little impact beyond local considerations.

Departmental application of XML usually requires a team representing all stakeholders involved in the process, from users to consumers of the info. There may be some departmental architectural standards, but exceptions to these are easier to accommodate than with enterprise applications. A careful leader of a departmental application will look upstream and down stream in the information flow to include some of their needs. Also, they need to realize that the editing process in their department may become more complex and require additional skills and resources, but that these drawbacks are more than offset but savings in other areas, such as page layout, or conversion to Web formats which can be highly automated. Don’t forget to explain these benefits to the users whose work just got a little more complicated!

An Enterprise solution is by definition tied to the business drivers of the enterprise, even if that means some decisions may seem like they come at the expense of one department over another. This is where an evangelist could be useful, but not if they only focus on XML instead of the benefits it provides. Executives need to know how much revenue can be increased, how many problem reports can be avoided in customer service, and whether they can meet regulatory compliance guidelines, etc. This is a much more complicated set of issues with dependencies on and agreement with other departments needed to be successful. If you can’t provide these types of answers, you may be stuck in departmental thinking.

XML may be the center of my universe (my belly button so to speak), but it is usually not the center of my project’s sponsor’s universe. I have to have the right message to covince them to make signifiaccnt investment in the way their enterprise operates.  </>

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