XML is an international data standard, a sort of lingua franca for computing. To be formal about it, XML stands for Extensible Markup Language. Practically speaking, XML is a method to structure electronic documents, and its aim is to separate presentation, structure, and meaning from the actual content. It's been so successful at doing this, it's now used to represent any kind of data structure (including databases and other business information).

XML takes an exceptionally simple approach to structure. In essence, it simply marks sections of a document with a descriptive label (hence "markup"—and because you're not limited to a fixed set of labels, it's "extensible"). Where a machine would find it difficult to read a document, XML has no trouble breaking down the marked sections into something it can use. It works the other way round, as well: while it's nearly impossible for a human to read the source of some proprietary data format, by contrast, an XML structure is actually intelligible. At least, it is to a developer – which is why developers find it relatively easy to do something with data they get in XML.

Of course, if you're not a developer, you'll now be thinking, So what? Well, think of it this way: by marking up a piece of content, XML makes files very easy to understand, move, and translate into other environments. These three reasons alone make XML a no-brainer for the small business that wants to grow, and one that recognizes that electronic information plays a major role in its current and future business endeavors.

Dig Deeper: What is XML?

Using XML: Understanding Your Data

Using XML, you can act independently of your software. In other words, you will be able to move data through software upgrades and even to different software products without the fear that it will become incompatible with its new environment. For example:

Let's say your company invests in handheld devices for a group of staff in the field to gather key customer information. Data is gathered the same way every time and is processed by your ERP system. You may find that the application and device it bought uses a closed proprietary data format, one that cannot be used in another context. You have locked yourself and your data into that one way of working permanently: You can't get the data out of the system in any other way.

If you'd use XML, on the other hand, you're free to do with it as you want. For instance, you could later decide to present the data to your customer in a friendly format, as well.

Dig Deeper: Managing Customer Data

Using XML:  Moving Data

Using XML, you will be able to interact with your suppliers' and partners' data and applications much more easily using industry standards. For example:

Let's say you run a small company that publishes information and wants to include Amazon as part of your distribution network. Your funky and effective way of working with your current network of resellers via e-mail just won't swing with Amazon. You have no option but to provide Amazon with catalogue data in XML format, and that is going to be the case with any of the bigger fish you might deal with in future. Perhaps it would have been easier to start building the portfolio in XML in the first place, instead of going through a painful migration once you have to.

Finally, if you choose to use XML, you will have the freedom to repurpose and re-use data in multiple situations, rather than repeatedly recreating it. For example:

Let's say that your company invests in great sales and marketing collateral for the Web, and you decide that it would be great to also publish the collateral to mobile environments—and in some cases—print.

Mountains of electronic market and sales collateral needs to be recreated in multiple formats. You may want to publish to the Web, to BlackBerries, in PDF format, inprinted brochures, and when you've got all of those covered, a new and unforeseen format is likely to sneak up on you. Does your business have an iPad app yet? Creating the same information in multiple different formats is lots of extra work; using XML radically simplifies the process.

Using XML: Getting Started

Managing information efficiently is notoriously difficult to do, and small businesses are no different than large enterprises; finding and managing information is a persistent a challenge. Even small businesses end up with a plethora of files and formats that are not only difficult to access, but equally difficult to reuse; XML is one big step towards correcting that situation. Your IT operation needs to be aligned not only with your tactical business needs today, but also with the long-term strategy and direction you want to take your business. Over time, your electronic information could become your most valuable asset. My advice is to take it seriously from the start.

However, in day to day operations, you're not the one that's going to read and write XML: your software is. As an entrepreneur running a small and growing business, you don't need to become an IT or technical wizard. There are armies of skilled people out there that can be employed or contracted, and they have all the IT skills you could ever need.

In fact, the small-business market is flooded with options, from mega vendors, to Mom & Pop shops turning out specialized business applications. Technology itself is relatively cheap, and whether you run servers and routers under your desk, or tap into the nearly unlimited power of "the cloud," you are well served.  

All you need to do is to tell your IT people, "Wherever possible, I want to standardize using XML for all data and content." It's as simple as that.

Using XML: About the Author

Alan Pelz-Sharpe is a Principal with The Real Story Group, covering and advising on ECM technologies and practices. He oversees all research at EIWatch.com, and focuses his own research in the areas of document management, records management, portals, and SharePoint.