4 Big Ideas in Technology that will transform supply chains

4 Big Ideas That Transformed Procurement Technology

The Big Ideas that will shape the future of procurement technology will be one of the hot topics at the Procurious Big Ideas Summit in London on April 30.

4 Big Ideas in Technology that will transform supply chains

That’s why we’ve invited leading technology influencers like Tim Hughes, Lance Younger, Peter Smith, and Mark Perera to be “in the room”, and provide their views on which technologies procurement professionals should keep in their cross hairs.

I think it was Machiavelli said, “whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past.” My belief is also that it sometimes helps to look in the rear view mirror, to understand what is coming up on the road ahead.

In this article I look back in time and share four of the Big Ideas in technology that I believe have helped shape the procurement profession as we know it today – common protocols, online catalogues, reverse auctions and barcodes.

From the outset, let me stress that I am no technology expert and that my list of Big Ideas in Procurement Technology was conceived under the palm trees of an island in the Indian Ocean. Some may say this provided me with perspective, others may say I’m deluded. Let’s see what you think!

Common protocols – EDI & cXML

Establishing common protocols for the exchange of business transaction data (such as purchase orders, invoices, shipping notices, and many others) provided the basis for the globalization of procurement and the demise of the paper and fax era.

Electronic data interchange (EDI) emerged in the late 60’s and focused on machine-to-machine transactions, but it proved cumbersome for the internet. In light of this, in 1999, Ariba created Commerce XML (cXML), which subsequently became the primary universal protocol for B2B interactions over the Internet.

Electronic catalogues

eProcurement came about as a way to conduct all sorts of purchasing transactions over the Internet, and marked a significant turning point in the use of technology for procurement.

Sometimes I wonder whether all the major eProcurement developments happened at the same time in the late ‘90s and we’ve just spent the last twenty years working out how best to use them, with the software companies refining the offerings in line with our demands.

Electronic catalogues were one of the first of the applications to be developed in the eProcurement suite.

It is easy today to think of this as a pretty basic development, but if you put it in context, consumer online shopping sites such as Amazon and eBay were only launched in 1995. Less than five years later, the corporate world was introducing its own, business-appropriate, form of online shopping.

The subsequent difficulties with managing in-house catalogues gave rise to the outsourcing of catalogue management, the creation of eMarketplaces and a whole new category of eProcurement applications and software providers that have flourished ever since.

Online reverse auctions

I LOVE a great reverse auction. Always have.

What I love most about reverse auctions is the need to follow a disciplined sourcing process in preparation for the event. I think this is one of the great, unsung benefits of this tool for the profession. Don’t worry, I have also heard all the downsides to online auctions. I know they have their place and that’s another reason why I love them – they are a weapon to be used selectively with great effect.

I love the story behind the creation of the online reverse auction – the Glen Meakem story. I was lucky enough to be both living in Pittsburgh when FreeMarkets was it its height, and also to be one of their customers. They were an impressive organisation.

Legend has it that Meakem conceived the idea when he was at a supplier negotiation day with GE. At that time, suppliers were marched into individual rooms Wal-mart style, interrogated, sent outside, then brought back in after their competitors had finished the same meeting. Flip charts were used to track pricing as it trended downwards.

Meakem had the idea to take this practice online and allow the negotiations to take place real time. Surprisingly, GE didn’t want to invest in the idea, so Meakem went out on his own, hiring McKinsey colleague Sam Kinney, and founding FreeMarkets with the purpose of facilitating the online tender process and running global auctions.

Reverse auctions proved to be a turning point for procurement, as they reinforced to company-wide suppliers the importance, and power, of a centralised purchasing team.

However, what I think makes reverse auctions most significant for the development of our profession is that not only did they really capture the attention of the C-suite, but also the rest of the organisation.

I remember hosting boardroom parties where colleagues from all parts of the business could come and cheer as they watched the prices being bid plummet. It’s not every day your colleagues get excited and stand up and cheer for procurement. It was a nice moment, and provided a great opportunity for procurement to demonstrate its value.

The Codes – The Bar… becomes the QR

I am certainly no barcode expert, but it is quite conceivable, as one story put it, that “no event in the history of modern logistics was more important” than the invention of the barcode.

Apparently, the first retail product sold with a barcode was a single pack of chewing gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio on June 26, 1974.

Forty years later, the latest incarnation of the bar code is the QR code (Quick Response Code) which is the trademark for a type of matrix, or two-dimensional, barcode.

The QR code has quickly become popular due to its fast readability and greater storage capacity compared to standard barcodes.

Where this development becomes very interesting is in today’s world of supply chain disruptions, where the QR can assist with product and time tracking, item identification and more efficient document management.

Given the procurement profession’s increasing need to guarantee supply chain transparency, the QR code could help provide some of the answers we need to protect our brands in the future.

The Big Ideas that will shape the future of procurement technology will be in the spotlight on 30 April at the Big Ideas Summit.

Procurement professionals around the world can get involved, and join Procurious’ 5000 members, as digital delegates by going to the Big Ideas Summit website and tweeting your Big Idea using #BigIdeas2015

You can also share your views on the ideas you believe disrupted procurement technology in the Procurious group.