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Large banking organizations have always been faced with the problem of distributing information that constitutes professional knowledge to the right people, at the right time, and in the right place. With the ever-increasing arrival of new technologies - information highways - this is a hot topic again. Internet and intranet-based solutions can bring new aspects into the communication of information.
Over and above the scope of distributing information, structured documents that contain professional knowledge have to be produced, validated, stored, maintained, and eventually distributed in a traditional environment that is being turned upside down. This paper shows how an SGML-based solution successfully transforms the dream of managing core business information into reality.
Philippe Fontaine is a project manager at ACSE sa/nv, Brussels, a member of the SGML Technologies Group. For over ten years he has been active as a software engineer and systems architect specializing in object-oriented distributed applications and complex document workflow systems. All these systems use SGML either as a document storage and exchange medium or as a formal message specification tool for communications between distributed application processes. He obtained a degree in electromechanical engineering of the Free University of Brussels; he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bank Brussels Lambert (BBL), part of ING one of the largest banks in Europe, has decided to structure, organize, and distribute the standard documents that are its professional knowledge through a new set of document-based applications.
The underlying objectives are:
The need for timely information (especially text-based information), and of consistency, guaranteed through a well-defined and validated information structure, and the need for separation of data content and data presentation brought the bank to the choice of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) as the pivotal means for building these knowledge management applications.
Given the size and the complexity of the overall project, several phases were defined on the basis of the different types of documents handled and the distribution channels used.
The documents that are currently handled by the SGML document system are:
The functionality that is currently available for a subset of the professional knowledge is provided by:
This section describes the general architecture that was put into operation at BBL. Given the overall context of knowledge management, modularity and evolution are the key factors of this architecture.
From a conceptual and technological point of view, SGML brings a solid base to the entire current and future application.
In the current architecture, authoring stations enable administrators to create SGML instances according to specific SGML DTDs and to store them in the SGML central repository. From there, import/export mechanisms allow for the extraction of document instance updates, and for the distribution of these updates to the decentralized read-only SGML repositories by means of SGML messages.
End-user applications are given access to the decentralized repositories for the retrieval and processing of document instances (eg compose a final letter with extracts from different SGML instances and add application data to the final instance).
SGML filters allow for the conversion of SGML instances into RTF (Rich Text Format) documents for final rendering or authoring (see below) and vice versa for the import of existing RTF documents or newly-authored documents into the SGML repository.
The core of the whole system is the SGML-based central repository. It allows for the structuring and storing of information in a vendor-independent and presentation-independent way.
The DTDs that specify the document structures provide the following functionality:
This central SGML repository is implemented on top of a classic RDBMS (Relational Database Management System) and can be completed with a workflow engine that automates the process of an application request, according to a state diagram.
Given the choice of text processor by BBL as an overall standard, and given the strategy in terms of workstations allocated to employees, the bank decided to develop authoring stations by customizing this standard text processor.
This choice, motivated by standards-related, strategic, and cost criteria, leads to the need:
Although customized text processor authoring stations are much more profitable for large-scale dissemination in such an environment, there is still a need for a native SGML editor for SGML document recovery or for one-shot specific editing.
In the current system, the distribution repositories are (and will remain) installed in the different subsidiaries and departments of the bank as SGML read-only repositories.
These repositories are populated by SGML instances (complete ones or updates) extracted from the central repository as described above. The built-in differentiation tool allows for the formatting of the updates of the DTD instances in an SGML message so that these differences can be re-played in the decentralized repository and thus update the distributed instances.
The distribution process itself is activated either by the central system administrator or through a request message coming from the decentralized site.
These distribution repositories are implemented with dBase files for financial reasons, as well as reasons of performance and conformance with banking standards.
In future, other distribution channels will be developed such as Web-based channels (HTML (HyperText Markup Language), XML (eXtensible Markup Language), intranet and extranet), on-line help channels (for the data-mining tool specification documents), and printing channels (paper delivery). These developments are already planned.
Apart from the usual application functionality such as search and retrieve, and view and print, the applications made available to the end-users can be operated using two different interfaces.
In both cases, filters to convert SGML documents to the corresponding RTF format are exploited. These allow for the display of the document by the bank's standard text processing software available on the end-user's workstation.
Menus presented to the user are actually an interactive and guided way of walking through the SGML document structure. Through these menus, the user is able to compose his document by integrating into the final document instance other fragments of documents extracted from the distribution repository. The menus guarantee that the final document is in accordance with the full DTD. The menu interface also enables the user to enter further data to complete variables of the document instance.
Through this interface, the application addresses a complete document instance directly and is no longer able to compose a document. The document instance is retrieved from the distribution repository according to search criteria and is either displayed on the user's workstation or processed to result in a final format in order to be printed or mailed, for example.
In a banking environment of this kind, full of legacy applications and procedures and with a multitude of users accustomed to their traditional working environment, it is a challenge to bring a completely new approach and new techniques to the end-user's workstation.
Up to now it has been a success, not only from a managerial and a developer's point of view but also - and this is a crucial factor - from the user's point of view.
Through this project, SGML is progressively improving document processes in one of the biggest banking institutions in Belgium. This is being achieved by:
SGML proved to be the ideal standard and provided the methodology for structuring and protecting information as important, as diversified, and as complex as the professional knowledge of the bank in a distributed environment.
Please e-mail your comments to Philippe Fontaine at email@example.com.
This paper was first published in the Conference Proceedings of Markup Technologies '98 US, November 1998, pp 161-64.
© The SGML Technologies Group 1998