Panelists at the InfoWorld CTO Forum recently discussed the possibilities that documentation armed with XML could result in a sagging supply-chain management model being stressed by customers’ desires for immediate returns and applications sorely in need of stronger integration.

Microsoft Corp.’s Office 2003, featuring new templates to allow end-users to integrate Word and Excel into databases at the field level through XML, was a hot topic during the panel discussion because of its capability to marry Web services and documentation.

“I really believe the role for [Microsoft] Office is to create the best front-end for Web services. I think about XML as the glue, the integrator,” said panelist Jean Paoli, XML Architect for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. “The end-user for the first time will take data from a Web service and do something with it. That is the democratization of XML.”

Unlike HTTP and PDFs which are presentation-oriented, Paoli said, documentation is quickly pointing toward a conveyance of data to be shared among multiple business processes and infrastructure pieces.

Speaking on behalf of his industrial supply organization, George Rimnac, vice-president and chief technologist at W.W. Grainger Inc., said customers’ needs for catalog information – is a product available? at what price? where is its location? – demand around-the-clock supply-chain immediacy coupled with many disparate systems.

“The real challenge is the tremendous variety that is still exceedingly across all suppliers and partners, what platforms [are in use], what software, what standards,” said Rimnac, whose distribution company serves as both a customer and supplier for many companies in the United States.

Rimnac said a major hurdle facing supply chains is discovering how to get business processes to work between multiple parties without stepping on each other’s toes. However, he noted, parties must be willing to change and adjust their business processes in order to pull together and have information flow unimpeded through an entire infrastructure for dissemination and retrieval.

On the subject of XML, Rimnac offered panel discussion attendees a cautious perspective, urging them to not overestimate complexities the technology could bring to an already tenuous operation. “[XML] has the potential of being a great advance and has the potential to be a great detriment. We have to be careful to make sure information is mutually agreed upon in the supply chain,” he remarked.

Kay van de Loo, director of Product Strategy, Global Business Unit Commerce Applications for SAP, said back-end and documentation innovations offer his company an opportunity to implement a new layer of business processes logic on top of Web services as the technology to support that.

“This is a huge integration problem we’re looking at from an application perspective, having to leverage XML and Web services between companies,” said panelist van de Loo. “We want to make these applications more accessible to fit in with other applications, data, documents, and make it acceptable to any user.”

For the small-and-medium business market, van de Loo said SAP is building pre-configured scenarios of applications based on Web services to eliminate the need to recruit outside consultants for supply-chain application development.