By Kelly Barner
What exactly is a procurement transformation project? They have been discussed so often, and with so few specifics, that you would be forgiven for wondering if anyone has successfully completed one. Add to that the trend towards ‘digital’ procurement, and the path forward can seem elusive.
For many organizations, the most tangible evidence of transformation is in how they implement and leverage technology. Digitalization, or taking manual, hard copy, or offline processes and moving them into a system where they can be centrally tracked and universally accessed, represents a huge transformational opportunity. Procurement technology is no exception, and thanks to the cloud it is now easier to implement new solutions and switch platforms than ever.
But has implementation reached the point where it is a candidate for automation? As technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) become increasingly common, it would be irresponsible not to at least consider their ability to assist in the implementation of procurement technology.
RPA uses a software script or ‘robot’ (rather than a nuts and bolts robot) to execute repeated, rules based processes. Any contact procurement has had with RPA up to this point has likely involved evaluating it as an alternative to tactical outsourcing services. The same is true of other advanced technologies (AI, machine learning, cognitive computing, etc.). We may look at them for the potential they hold for the rest of the enterprise, missing that they also represent an opportunity for procurement.
Despite the newness of RPA, we should consider ourselves consumers as well as evaluators of emerging technology. In fact, all parties involved in procurement system implementations can benefit from tech-enabled accuracy, efficiency, and affordability.
Since the majority of companies already have some form of procurement technology in place, implementing something new requires decisions about what to do with historical data, profiles, and events. This information is already in a structured format, and therefore it should be possible to create a set of rules or steps to move it over to the new system. This sort of ‘bridge building’ is a task tailor made for RPA. Rather than leaving information behind and risking user backslide into the legacy system, or facing the dull and herculean effort of having people move the information over, RPA can manage the bulk of the transition. This only leaves the exceptions to be resolved through human intervention.
Part of what makes tech companies good at leading implementations is that they do it over and over and over again. They know which steps are the most important and where input from users will have the greatest impact on adoption. Providers also know which parts of the implementation process are value creation opportunities and which are just tactical and time consuming. If the tactical parts, including data cleansing, enrichment, and categorization, can be accelerated using RPA, they can compress the timeline and reduce the cost to deliver the final product.
Ironically, the benefit to consultants of leveraging RPA for system implementations is likely the opposite of that realized by solution providers. While solution providers can streamline the tactical, commonly repeated parts of the process using RPA, consultants can use it to focus on the differences between clients. Large consulting firms make money by executing at scale. This often leaves their clients feeling like they received a cookie cutter solution for project with a custom-level price tag. When consultants are able to focus their attention and effort on the exceptions, they can create more value for their customers and build strong relationships that represent a competitive advantage for future engagements.
Many of today’s discussions about advanced technology and automation still seem like the stuff of science fiction – especially since early adopter companies have a tendency to be the largest and most progressive in their markets. So what about the rest of us? System deployment is a practical application for RPA, one that will help procurement on their digitalization journey while reducing the risk and cost associated with third party implementation partners.
About the author
Kelly Barner is the owner of Buyers Meeting Point, an online resource for procurement and purchasing professionals. Her unique perspective on supply management is based on her time as a practitioner, a consultant at a solution provider, and now as an independent thought leader. Kelly has led projects involving members of procurement, supplier, and purchasing teams and has practical skills in strategic sourcing program design and management, opportunity assessment, knowledge management, and custom taxonomy design.