The UK e-invoicing debate – purity and pragmatism

The UK e-invoicing debate – purity and pragmatism

I attended the round table event on e-invoicing in London on the 9th December and I shared some thoughts on the event here. I want to share a few more thoughts, but this time I want to look at the way the debate is framed technically.

I have previously criticised PEPPOL for being far too rooted in technology rather than business. I am not alone in making that comment although I seem to have my head above the parapet more often. A similar sense washed over me at the roundtable, partly from the contributions from the European Commission and Open PEPPOL but also from other industry insiders there.

My feeling is that there is an industry agenda in play here, an agenda which ignores business realities. The impetus is to seek a ‘solution’ which ticks all the boxes of the industry ivory tower whereas if we really want eInvoicing to gain traction we need to look at what is already working in the market and at what participants actually want.

Purchasing Insight logoFor example at one point in the discussion someone said that what we really want is a means for systems to talk directly to systems, a view which conveniently overlooks that such an approach has been available for decades either through EDI or XML and has been comprehensively ignored by the vast majority of suppliers and buyers. I can see no reason to think that they are suddenly going to conclude that it is workable.

Similarly it was mentioned that SEN is likely to propose a European standard based on UBL and UN/CEFACT. A look at the figures from one provider in the market shows that what is actually working now in the market can be split roughly into 3 types – one third cXML, one third eBIS XML and one third proprietary standards much of which was SAP iDoc which is also simple XML schema. Only 2% of their activity is based around UBL and that is entirely within Denmark (and even then is, I am told, a version tweaked for the Danish public sector). There is some us of JSON in the USA.

Let me be clear, I have no problem with SEN proposing standards in UBL and UN/CEFACT so long as it also recognises what the market is actually standardising around which is simpler forms of XML. But this isn’t a message that the purists seem to want to hear, and neither do the reasons why UBL is not popular make much headway – hint: if it is easier to use paper than UBL then people will use paper. Paper invoices don’t fail at a schema level for minor errors such as typos.

We live in a commercial world and, as Tim McGrath commented during the morning session, standards arise from use not from mandate. To mandate ‘standards’ which are not in use to the exclusion of those which are is a special kind of madness reserved for the IT industry and policy makers.

Ian Burdon can be found on twitter @IanBurdon

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