HR-Specific Standards May Speed Data Exchange

By Bill Roberts Jun 1, 2000

Standards now in the works could let HR send data easily to Internet job boards, business partners and others, without tweaking code repeatedly.

The Internet has been a boon to the recruiting efforts of Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a global technology consulting firm based in McLean, Va. Recruitment web sites, such as, have sprung up all over cyberspace. Such sites provide Booz-Allen, which has 9,000 workers and is growing rapidly, with a steady flow of candidates for technology jobs throughout the world.

Here’s the problem: The different data-format requirements of each web site mean that any time the Booz-Allen recruiters find another site to work with, they must write a template that will format their data for export to the new site.

“There’s no data format standard among all the vendors,” says Steven Brown, office technology specialist for the firm’s recruitment team. “If I start with a new service, I get a data sheet that describes how they’d like to receive the information. We essentially wrap the data from our database according to their needs.” When a web site changes its data needs, Brown must revise the template.

“To make things more efficient, all vendors and employers must agree to work on a standard,” Brown says.

Brown may get his wish. Efforts are under way to develop standards specifically to let HR communicate easily with web job boards, business partners and even competitors. and other recruitment sites, HR systems developers, applications vendors, service providers and many others have joined the HR-XML Consortium Inc., a non-profit organization based in Raleigh, N.C. With more than 60 members so far, the consortium represents an industrywide effort to create data exchange standards for a broad array of HR processes—receiving resumes, posting jobs, administering benefits, maintaining payroll and more.

The consortium seeks to develop a vocabulary of HR-specific data objects and schemas for the Extensible Markup Language (XML), which will allow HR technologists everywhere to exchange data easily. Brown says, “HR-XML would give us a much more efficient way to share information.” HR-XML could mean the ability to send the same job posting information to a slew of web sites and to accept resumes in a wide variety of formats—without having to tweak code for different sources and destinations. And recruiting and staffing is just the start of the standards effort.

What’s in a Name?

To understand what HR-XML means, look at the latter half first. XML is a streamlined, web-compatible version of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). SGML is a complex and powerful language for defining text document formats. You may be more familiar with another language derived from SGML—Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), a more basic, fixed language that tells a web browser how to display data. HTML is the bread-and-butter language behind most of the web pages you see.

Unlike HTML, XML is extensible, which means it can be used to convey display instructions and describe the content of just about any type of file, including text, web pages, spreadsheets, database files and graphics. By describing content with great specificity, XML enables automated data exchange without requiring custom programming.

To use XML between them, for example to exchange resumes, two parties must define and agree on specific object tags and data schemas (a schema defines the tables and fields in a database and the relationships between them). Having a whole industry agree on standards would allow easier data exchange.

To describe content so that everyone can share it easily, XML requires development of common definitions for “objects.” An example of an object familiar to HR is a person’s name. But as Naomi Bloom, HR consultant with Bloom & Wallace in Fort Myers, Fla., points out, this seemingly simple object illustrates the challenges in developing a standard.

You might think that coming up with a tag and structure for the object of person (or name) would be easy. But even within one country like the United States, the use of first name, middle name and last name, in that order, is not consistent. Any standard tag must be consistent yet allow for differences in segments and their order. For example, there needs to be a cultural context indicator in the tag because name structure differs widely based on culture and country. There needs to be a purpose attribute to indicate whether the name is a maiden name, professional name, legal name or something else.

“If we can come up with this kind of structure, then we can handle just about any variation,” Bloom says. “But most vendors don’t use this kind of structure in their existing products. And they can’t just quickly migrate to them.”

The potential benefits of standards outweigh the challenges, Bloom says. She points out that a typical Fortune 500 company’s HR system may have between 30 and 50 interfaces with other systems, all of which must be upgraded whenever any system changes. Standards could make those upgrades obsolete.

Since the advent of the web, many groups have begun work on creating XML tags and schemas they hope will become the standards for specific industries. Standards-setting bodies are at work in the automobile, electronics, financial and aerospace industries. (IBM, which is involved in many of these XML standards bodies, estimates that there are between 30 and 50 groups working on XML standards for different areas.)

Recruiting and Beyond

Chuck Allen, director of the HR-XML Consortium, figures that 95 percent of the group’s members already use XML within their companies and, in many cases, with their business partners. The problem is that the tags and schemas in use are those agreed upon either for internal purposes only or only among partners. All the HR management systems developers already have XML capabilities and interfaces in their products, he notes, but what HR lacks is a standard HR-XML vocabulary.

“The grand vision is for an environment where you just send something and the other server reads it,” says Allen. “We’re trying to avoid the situation where you call up, talk to the other party’s engineers, negotiate and agree to the XML vocabulary you’re going to use.”

The consortium initially formed to work on an XML vocabulary for the recruiting and staffing area but quickly recognized a broader mission. Among its members now are all the major HR management systems developers, including PeopleSoft, Oracle and SAP. Most of the large, web-based staffing service providers and job posting sites are involved, and several large employers, including IBM, are participating. Allen, the consortium’s director, also is the principal consultant for Structured Methods Inc., a Raleigh, N.C., firm that builds and maintains large-scale web sites.

The International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) is a non-voting member. The initiative “has all the backing to succeed,” says Jim Morrone, an IHRIM board member and its representative on the consortium. “They have all the big companies, and all the dot-com recruiting companies have jumped on board. With those numbers and the fact that it keeps growing, it has a good chance of success,” says Morrone, president of PeoplePros Inc., a Greensboro, N.C.-based PeopleSoft consulting firm.

The Politics of Standards

Right now, the consortium is most aggressively tackling tags and schemas for recruitment and staffing. The consortium also has working groups looking at compensation, benefits and payroll.

The group is working on two parallel paths, trying to get the first set of schemas out the door pronto, while beginning a more deliberative effort to develop a library that may eventually contain thousands of schemas and objects. “We can get significant pieces of this library done this year,” says Allen. “It will never be fully complete, but it should be substantially more complete by the end of the following year.”

There are challenges, starting with the politics of standards, even though the group is apparently off to a good start. The members, many of whom are competitors, are willing to share their proprietary tags and schema work, says Edward Jackson, chief technology officer at SkillsVillage Inc., a web-based skills procurement and fulfillment engine in Santa Clara, Calif., and a member of the consortium’s technical steering committee.

However, because many of the established players, especially the large HR systems developers, already have schemas and tags of their own, there could be a tendency for some members to push their own tags as standard—if only for the sake of minimizing the upgrading of their own established products.

The consortium faces the same problems as any standards effort, says Jenni Lehman, an analyst at the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn.: “The question is whether you can get consensus and adoption fast enough to make any difference. Or will companies just keep doing their own thing?”

Driven by the Internet

One condition of membership is the commitment to use and promote the standards, says Jackson. He admits that such a collaborative effort would not have been possible just a few years ago. But the Internet is driving all kinds of partners and competitors into various forms of collaboration never before thought possible.

The major auto makers, for example, are devising a single, web-based supply chain management system for use by all auto makers. So far, that kind of collaboration also is the watchword for HR-XML, says Jackson: “At present, there is amazing enthusiasm by the HR-XML members to make this happen.”

“We expect to see a tremendous amount of collaboration between companies, especially in staffing,” says Lehman. “To achieve that we need common ground in technology and communication between systems. Every integration point between companies has to be hard-wired if you’re not using XML.”

But even if good will reigns, Lehman adds, there’s another concern: Due to typical development cycles of 12 to 18 months, the HR management systems vendors will be behind the curve in adopting the latest HR-XML standards. Adoption by the web-based recruiting and staffing sites, on the other hand, will be much easier because most are startups not yet entrenched in their ways, she says.

To keep things running smoothly, the consortium hired Bloom, who has already worked with many of the group’s members and who has spent years working on HR vocabulary, structure and definitions. The consortium is using Bloom’s vocabulary, with which many of the members are already familiar, as its starting point.

What Gets Priority?

Bloom says job boards are going to care most about resumes, job postings and candidate profiles. HR systems vendors, on the other hand, will care most about broad HR functionality. “Needless to say, there’s going to be some creative tension as we go along,” she says.

“We have to have a balance,” she adds. “We may have to do something quick and dirty knowing it is release 1.0 and knowing that there will be a more robust version later. The greatest dangers are coming out with inadequate standards, taking too long to produce anything of value or coming out with stuff that is good enough but only relevant to a minority.”

Bill Roberts is a freelance writer based in Los Altos, Calif., who covers business, technology and management issues.


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