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UN/CEFACT is an organisation that makes international EDI Electronic Data Interchange standards for electronic trade documents in XML format.

History, A UN mission to support trade

UN/CEFACT has its roots in United Nations (UN) missions in trade support. Starting in the 1940s and also forms the UNECE based on the issue "make trade not war!" and making nations more dependent on each other and limit the risk of war (making war more expensive).

At start paper customs forms were standardised to make them readable even if they were issued "in the wrong language".

A previous project during the 1980s was the EDIFACT project of international EDI Electronic Data Interchange standard.

Electronic trade documents

At start by the end of last millennium there was a need of getting more modern and easier applicable electronic trade documents for international information interchange between trade administrative systems. The modern XML technology gave the opportunity to develop many new types of computer tools and technologies to handle administrative business and trade data. Especially the SMEs (Small and medium enterprises) were more or less technically closed out of the EDIFACT not being designed for them. The growing ambitions of e-government also increased the need for official standards in this work field.

The UN reorganised UNECE with organisations under it like UN/CEFACT. UN/CEFACT was organised in different task groups on different topics (and an organisation integrating the groups work and document them in the UN/CEFACT Core component library (Core Component Technical Specification (CCTS)). UN/CEFACT developed the ebXML an XML architecture for trade and business electronic documents.

A huge number of experts in different work areas of the project from all over the world have been participating in the work for over 10 years. And the work is still ongoing and there are many parties globally waiting for a final result.

An official UN mission, the work, the all in principle

The work has a lot of the UN diplomatic atmosphere and way of being, that certainly leads to agreements, but is criticised to be slow.

The diversity of topics makes very different views on what the core focus of the project is, and this is an important political issue for the general management of the UN/CEFACT to unite the general view of the project. The UN/CEFACT management that is characterised by the UN atmosphere, where normally no party is excluded and a political statement/will of all nations participation. In the end there will be very usable UN/CEFACT standards made that all parties agree about, the major risk is that they might come too late and the technical development makes them old very quick.

All delegates are volunteer experts appointed by the different UN member states involved in the project. To a large extent it is the UN member states that have to engage experts into the work and their delegations. In general everyone that is willing interested and able is by the national delegation appointed expert and allowed into the work.

But the funding of work time, travel and lodging expenses are paid for by the experts themselves (their employer). This leads to a much stronger representation of governmental experts from the various countries rather than private enterprises, and especially SMEs are indeed underrepresented. This is indeed the normal case of most such projects and governmental funding support of private representation in their delegations, are very rare.

Most private enterprises have today so short financial perspectives that participation in standard committee work is often seen as a pure cost of nothing. This tends to make large parts of the private sector not following and being informed about such standard projects exists. A tendency exists of taking matters in own hands and start smaller private initiatives to perform specifications much faster avoiding the UN “all agree” slow culture. And often with very specific funding and demanding management to solve a specific practical problem. But such private initiatives often has problems spreading in general use and is not applicable in governmental legal demands.

An official UN mission, the IPR (intellectual property rights) and applied technology aspects

One factor of importance is that official standard organisations like UN/CEFACT, ISO etc. are not dealing with implementation guidelines, that for instance a vendor interest group can deal with. The reason is that it is considered to be applied technology and as such Proprietary software solutions.

There is a strict demand of no claims of IPR (intellectual property rights) of any contributions to the committee work. In fact there was a case in UN/CEFACT 2007 where a large SW vendor presented a solution that later was discovered they claim patent rights over. There was an upset debate for several days and the part has to be scratched from the committee work. All specifications IPRs are owned by the UN and as such open for free use by everyone.

A backside of the non-proprietary claim is that implementation guidelines are excluded from the committee work (indeed allowed to be made by contributors but not in the name of UN/CEFACT). Without implementation guidelines it is more or less unavoidable that dialects in application implementation will be a huge problem. The sender/writer and receiver/reader is not understanding each other completely, often making huge misunderstandings between systems and the usage fail. For instance if different data types (part of a specification like dates) is used to generate reports the reports will be different and not the same in the sender and receivers applications. The file specification carrying the data is the same but the data is not the same.

If there are many implementation guidelines used there will be in practice many different standards based on the same file specification, a situation very hard to deal with. However most often there are very strong monopoly tendencies in SW applied technology. The most commonly used wins quickly over other dialects (as long as the dialects are not closed user/application groups). IBM in the 1970s and 1980s were famous in computer science to claim their specifications as De facto standards even if they owned all the possible IPRs of it, and were very successful of its days, due to the IBM applications being the de facto implementation guideline. In private specification projects that do not claim being open official standards, implementation guidelines are normally a part of the work ensuring the usability.

To make standards used is in general a very hard issue because of the hen and egg factor. There are very few construction tools and SW for a standard not being widely used, and there are very few using a standard where there are no tools and applications using it. The private initiatives solving a specific problem usually tends to create a limited but well focused user and vendor societies, often even closed user groups. The general and slow UN “all in” policy makes such issues easier to solve but it is definitely a topic to work on.

An official UN mission, procurement aspects

In difference to most other business and trade standard committees the UN/CEFACT is an official standard organisation and not a vendor interest group. This makes a huge difference in official procurement and especially government procurement where private specifications are very hard to defend being seen as Trade obstacles and is often a reason of complaints in official procurement. UN/CEFACT as an UN intergovernmental official organisation and the connection with ISO makes its specifications unquestionable in procurement procedure demands.

One problem is that implementation guidelines are not normally referable in official procurement due to the fact no official (ISO-related) standard organisations are dealing with implementation guidelines. Without a specification of implementation guidelines there is a very clear likelihood that systems based on the same officially standardised specifications do not understand each other due to implementation dialectal problems. The political layer of parliaments and European Council can deal with such on basis of being the political body of a free trade and procurement area. But they normally don’t. Procurement is a hard issue and there are ambitions on solving topics like this. If the private sector due to the monopoly tendencies of the market (preferring solutions that do work) there might luckily be one final and widely used implementation guideline of the final UN/CEFACT specifications. But still it (the implementation guidelines) can’t be claimed for in official procurement.

UN/CEFACT Task Groups

TBG1 - Supply chain

TBG3 - Transport & Logistics

TBG4 - Customs

TBG5 - Finance (mainly banking)

TBG6 - Architecture, Engineering and Construction

TBG8 - Insurance

TBG9 - Travel, Tourism and Leisure

TBG10 - Healthcare

TBG12 - Accounting & Audit

TBG13 - Environmental

TBG14 - Business Process Analysis

TBG15 - International trade Procedures

TBG16 - Entry Points (internal information of the project and EDIFACT)

TBG17 - Core Component Technical Specification (CCTS) Harmonization

TBG18 - Agriculture

TBG19 - e-Government

UN/CEFACT Applied Technologies Group

The purpose of the UN/CEFACT Applied Technologies Group is to create and maintain the United Nations trade, business and administration document structures that are deployed by a specific technology or standard, such as UN/EDIFACT, UN Layout Key, UN e-docs or XML. Additionally, ATG has been given responsibility for the development and maintenance of the UN/CEFACT Data Type catalogue in support of CCTS.

The activities of the ATG will cover:

  • The design, assembly and production of specific syntax based solutions based on identified business requirements from the International Trade and Business Processes Group (TBG) and utilizing reference libraries maintained by the Information Content Management Group (ICG);
  • The design, assembly and production of specific syntax based solutions based on identified technical requirements from the various Groups inside the UN/CEFACT forum;
  • Development and maintenance of CCTS Data Type Catalogue
  • Maintenance of specific syntax based solutions through the application of Data Maintenance Requests against existing publications;
  • Development and maintenance of design and production rules and guidelines governing the specific syntax based solutions;
  • Formation of liaisons with appropriate bodies.

CII (Cross industry invoice), the UN/CEFACT Electronic invoice

One of the most important tasks is to create a future common internationally applicable electronic invoice (Electronic commerce) as a future standard. There are quite some electronic invoice formats already in the market but not that widely spread and in general not implemented for compatibility. The use of them has made quite some experience and a growing demand.

One of the major producers of present significant electronic invoice formats Universal Business Language)) is collaborating with UN/CEFACT with the development of the UN/CEFACT invoice and ebXML.

Simplification in governmental reporting is also an important topic

Among the workgroups there are obviously quite a few working on rational means of governmental reporting like customs, agricultural reporting, e-government, VAT and other types of governmental reporting. This as a part of the general simplification movement among governments and the European Commission, but also a strict connection to UN/CEFACTs early activities.

UN/CEFACT Accounting

One of the work groups TBG12 is working on accounting and audit file specifications. The accounting is the terminal point of trade administration and seen as an important part of the entire project.

Of all, the accounting and financial reports are the section of the entire UN/CEFACT work area that is restricted by most legal demands and regulations. In practice most other work fields of UN/CEFACT are restricted by legal demands and regulations of the accounting and financial reports. With transparency in the accounting, all data of the processes and the final result of all other activities of an organisation or enterprise, can be found over the accounting data. With transparency in accounting most governmental reporting can be made with the accounting data as the reporting data source.

UN/CEFACT TBG12 has created an accounting interchange file format in XML. The French accountant organisation EDIFICAS has taken a very serious part of the accounting file development work. The UN/CEFACT accounting specification allows carrying the data of full accounting transparency.

UN/CEFACT accounting can be used for information interchange of accounting General ledger, balances as well as complete accounting ledger including identifiers (object oriented accounting, quantity accounting and transparency support).

Accounting - Relation UN/CEFACT accounting to XBRL GL and SIE

XBRL GL and SIE (file format) are also making open standard accounting interchange file formats.

XBRL GL (General Ledger) and UN/CEFACT accounting are XML file standards with about the same purpose and content, in modern XML file format. The elder (1992) domestically well spread Swedish SIE (file format) is a tagged text file format. The XML technology is much better suited to work with modern HTML and WEB-based technology and tools. The XML files are in the range 20-50 times larger than SIE files on the hard disk.

The XML format abilities and the huge activities around XBRL and UN/CEFACT have created a huge potential and expectations of modern accounting technologies. XBRL GL is certainly formed from its origins, the audit and financial reporting societies in the USA and globally. UN/CEFACT is working on trade administration theme and accounting is the terminal point of trade administration and its file format is designed from a trade administration point of view. SIE from a local Swedish vendor society's market interests.

Accounting information interchange issues - The accounting file standard stand-off

One of the major problems of UN/CEFACT is finalizing its project into something convincingly working. Right now UN/CEFACT seems the last years have an internal stand-off in delivering. Beside that there are especially in accounting some main issues to solve.

Is a common international accounting file format possible?

There has been quite some file format debate. However differences in Chart of accounts between countries, represents a much bigger compatibility problem of information interchange between accounting and financial reports between accounting cultures. Tax regulations also make huge differences in the actual content of accounting and financial report information between countries.

The basic issue is if it is possible to transfer accounting data over governmental boundaries and the data would be understood by the receiver? Will it be possible for someone to read a balance sheet with a foreign chart of accounts and understand it? Will it make any difference to transfer it by computer files in standardized file formats?

The EU commission has spent large efforts into the field of tax administrative harmonisation and for instance is the main intention latest version of the EU VAT directive to achieve this and to support electronic trade documents like electronic invoices better in cross border trade especially within the European Union Value Added Tax Area. But there is still a huge way to real compatible charts of accounts and international accounting information interchange.

One question is if international trade agreements have much value without a global harmonisation in VAT tax administrative legislation between the agreeing parts. The EU-agreements with countries like Norway do not include VAT union membership. And so goods are stuck in customs (to large costs) for VAT declaration and administratively it requires a lot of work. Work and halting not happening within the EU VAT union. With global VAT legislation administrative harmonisation a lot is suddenly possible. Many new international free trade agreements are in 2013 in bargain state.

Procurement - Being a standard organisation or not?

Another problem is the EU standards organisation.

The benefit of the data producer?

XBRL has a general problem being designed for the receiving users of information like audits and analysers and it doesn’t look to be enough really convincing arguments for the information producers (companies doing the actual accounting) to pay for the XBRL GL file producing features in commercial software. And without support of the information producers there will be no data for the analysers and audits in XBRL GL format, and so no market for commercial software for them either.

What defines accounting boundaries and accounting file contents?

Accounting is originally manual work and parts of it has been computerised using accounting commercial software. But a commercial aspect of accounting is its boundaries and what should be included in accounting commercial software feature packages.

The accounting work is making accounting vouchers with entries and then check the entries are right. The major checking tools are the bank account statements to and cash (register) lists, to prove that every monetary transaction is accounted for in the accounting. Still this checking is to a large extent manual very labour-intensive work computers do much better. Secondly proving that there are evidences for what the transactions consist of by the voucher documentation. Vouchers that are incoming and outgoing invoices (and receipts), in practice a physical voucher folder. (Still the EU VAT directive and many countries VAT legislation demands keeping physical paper folders of vouchers making scanned vouchers not that smooth to work with. This despite the EU commission has a vision of electronic vouchers. Same legislation makes problems with electronic invoices and integration with accounting. So there are still much to solve.)

Another way of looking it are the legal demands and 95% of all legal demands of accounting comes from VAT legislation where the EU VAT directive (European Union value added tax) is the most fully covering documentation. By it is’s obvious that invoices and receipts are more than other things, accounting documents (required by the VAT legislation), secondly civil law documents and thirdly as general trade documents. The accounting documenting (required by the VAT legislation) is the main regulated part, actually the main regulating law of the entire accounting.

To make benefits for the producer of the data it is most likely in this field integration and atomisation features are that are worth paying for by the paying customer of commercial software producing accounting information files (like XBRL GL SIE and UN/CEFACT). To do that invoices (with Accounts payables and Accounts receivables) and bank account statements could be considered as accounting documents, and included in a standard file format solution. None of the present file formats do.

The lack of accounting integration is also the most likely reason for electronic invoice formats perform still very low market volumes and progress also here is slow. Mainly because the electronic invoice formats are not in first designed after accounting and VAT legislation demands, but in unregulated trade document perspectives.

Interesting is that there are no standard file formats for bank account statements and it is not (according to the UN/CEFACT banking group TBG5) in the interest of the banks, but for accounting to have, making automatic matching possible with accounting. However an international standard file format for bank account statements would make huge benefits in developing internet banking pages with new features benefitting the bank customers. Especially if integration with a standard invoice (receipt) format would be included.

Applied use instruction set to be understood - making a commercial software market possible

XBRL GL is also without an additional use instruction set, not tight/clear enough in of its file format, still making it very uncertain, in how to use XBRL GL. That a reading party would actually understand what data in an external XBRL GL file, really stands for.

The situation is like agreeing on using a common writing alphabet without agreeing on what language to use it for. If someone sends a letter in Portuguese in Latin letters to a Dutchman often the Dutchman do not understand Portuguese, even though he can read Latin letters. We have the same problem here. And with no general solution, agreements between every writing and reading user must be made, and that is not a smooth solution getting volumes and a market for commercial software.

An issue SIE as a vendor organisation is able to solve but a standards organisation ethics do not allow UN/CEFACT or XBRL to handle. SIE could be a key player here, supplying an applied instruction layer to XBRL GL (and UN/CEFACT accounting). But at the SIE year meeting 2013 after studying XBRL GL for a year, and a representative of XBRL GL international present at the meeting, the main members argued “who is the paying customer?” and the project of making a SIE XBRL GL implementation run into the sand.

There are a number of articles in the branch would press about very expensive XBRL projects with very sparse results of volume use. The contradiction between standards organisation ethics and applied technology (a common implementation instruction set) issues, is a hard thing to solve to make such projects more likely successful.

In 1992 SIE solved the issue for the commercial software market had to by customer demand to follow, or not sell any volumes. Actually the existence of the common format showed the market very good arguments for the data producing users real strong benefits. Especially the interactivity in daily accounting between the company, accounting consultant and audit, being very rational and benefitted in possible daily information feedback. Benefits and features almost impossible to convince paying customers are possible before the features are actually available, and this is a huge commercial problem for XBRL GL and UN/CEFACT solve, not being a vendor interest group society. Interesting is that the start vision of SIE was about the same as XBRL, export from accounting of data to tax declaration commercial software. But it is possible to find special benefit points data for producers, and by it make them pay to get the features of the accounting standard file format, but it is a hard commercial design issue.

SIE however refuse to go international and refuse make further development steps (because large members claim at the 2013 year meeting they can’t see the paying customer of expensive SW development projects that will come out of it).

There is a general stand-off situation in this market field. And how UN/CEFACT will solve it, is the major future question?

UN/CEFACT a trade administration data interchange project

The United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business, (UN/CEFACT) has a mission to improve the ability of business, trade and administrative organizations, from developed, developing and transitional economies, to exchange products and relevant services effectively - and so contribute to the growth of global commerce. The Centre is a subsidiary body of the UNECE Committee on Trade (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe).

The Centre is inclusive, in that it welcomes participation from United Nations Member States, intergovernmental agencies, sectoral and industry associations recognized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as well as the private sector, from which much of UN/CEFACT's technical expertise comes.

UN/CEFACT facilitates the development of e-business standards that can cross all international boundaries and help lower transaction costs, simplify data flow and reduce bureaucracy.

Work outputs of UN/CEFACT activities include ebXML, UN/CEFACT's Modeling Methodology (UMM) and UN/EDIFACT.

A cornerstone of the "UN/CEFACT approach" is the Core Component Technical Specification (CCTS).

Picture of the future of a holistic UN/CEFACT-based e-Business stack: "From EDI to UN/CEFACT - An Evolutionary Path towards a Next Generation e-Business Stack": In the course of the NCEB2006 conference (5th International Conference on e-Business), an evolutionary path towards the most promising solution in e-Business and e-Government that is developed by UN/CEFACT is presented.

The UN/CEFACT electronic data forms

The following 94 forms are until May 2014 (version D13B), developed by UN/CEFACT:

  • AAA Accounting Entry Message
  • AAA Accounting Journal List Message
  • AAA Accounting Message
  • AAA Bundle Collection Message
  • AAA Chart Of Accounts Message
  • AAA Ledger Message
  • AAA Reporting Message
  • AAA Trial Balance Message
  • Acknowledgement
  • Agronomical Observation Report
  • Animal Inspection Message
  • Contract Summary Data
  • Cost Data
  • Cost Schedule
  • Crop Data Sheet Message
  • Cross Border Livestock
  • Cross Industry Catalogue
  • Cross Industry Demand Forecast Response
  • Cross Industry Demand Forecast
  • Cross Industry Despatch Advice
  • Cross Industry Inventory Forecast
  • Cross Industry Invoice
  • Cross Industry Order Change
  • Cross Industry Order Response
  • Cross Industry Order
  • Cross Industry Quotation Proposal Response
  • Cross Industry Quotation Proposal
  • Cross Industry Remittance Advice
  • Cross Industry Request For Quotation Response
  • Cross Industry Request For Quotation
  • Cross Industry Supply Instruction
  • Cross Industry Supply Notification
  • Data Specification Profile
  • Data Specification Query
  • Data Specification Request
  • Data Specification
  • Electronic Animal Passport Message
  • Electronic Data Exchange Proxy
  • Examination Result Notification
  • FLUX ACDR Message
  • FLUX Response Message
  • FLUX Vessel Position Message
  • Funding Data
  • Invitation To Tender
  • Laboratory Observation Report
  • Letter Of Invitation To Tender
  • Lodging House Information Request
  • Lodging House Information Response
  • Lodging House Reservation Request
  • Lodging House Reservation Response
  • Lodging House Travel Product Information
  • Material Safety Data Sheet
  • MSI Request
  • MSI
  • Network Schedule
  • Prequalification Application
  • Project Artefact Profile
  • Project Artefact Query
  • Project Artefact Request
  • Project Artefact
  • Qualification Application
  • Qualification Result Notice
  • RASFF Notification Message
  • Reception Of Prequalification Application
  • Reception Of Qualification Application
  • Reception Of Registration Application
  • Reception Of Request For Tender Information
  • Reception Of Response Of Tender Guarantee
  • Reception Of Tender Guarantee
  • Reception Of Tender
  • Registration Application
  • Reporting Calendar Data
  • Report Structure
  • Request For Tender Information
  • Resourcing Data
  • Response Of Tender Guarantee
  • Schedule Calendar Data
  • SPSAcknowledgement
  • SPSCertificate
  • Tender Guarantee
  • Tender Information
  • Tender Result Notice
  • Tender
  • Thresholds
  • TMW Cancellation Message
  • TMW Certificate Of Waste Receipt Message
  • TMW Certificate Of Waste Recovery Disposal Message
  • TMW Confirmation Of Message Receipt Message
  • TMW Movement Announcement Message
  • TMW Notification Acknowledgement Message
  • TMW Notification Decision Message
  • TMW Notification Submission Message
  • TMW Request For Further Notification Information Message
  • TMW Transport Statement Message

See also

External links

  • UN/CEFACT files, documentation and code
  • Recent specifications such as CCTS
  • "From EDI to UN/CEFACT - An Evolutionary Path towards a Next Generation e-Business Stack"
  • Information about the potential of UN/CEFACT
  • SAP Developer Network: How to solve the business standards dilemma
  • SIE
  • XBRL
  • Alphabet AB program demo of the 77 electronic documents, editing, saving and reading files
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