All posts by Paul Blake

Food, Glorious Factory Food! – Challenging the Tech Status Quo

If procurement continues to accept the technological status quo as some kind of given, we’ll continue to be fed the same poor diet. Paul Blake explains why it’s time to challenge the hard-and-fast rules we’ve adopted for so long without question. 

Register as an online delegate for the London Big Ideas Summit 2017 here.

Have you ever wondered why food made in factories is so awful?

Please don’t assume this is going to be a rant about organic carrots and the danger of the shop-bought cake. Let me reassure you that it’s on the contrary.

There’s nothing quite like a home-cooked meal 

Modern living and demands on personal time mean that conveniently available, ready-to-eat food is a fact of everyday life. Everything from jam to lasagne is made in factories, often with minimal human interaction. This can be a very good thing in many ways.

So, if we accept that industrially manufactured food is a thing, one question still remains. Why is it just not as good as the homemade or handmade equivalent? Again, we should allow for the dependency on precisely whose hands are involved. But, all things being equal, a dish made by a competent cook, from scratch will out-score a factory-made one.

At first glance, it might seem obvious. Factory products resource lower cost raw ingredients, preservatives and flavourings for longer shelf-life. No wonder your canned chilli ain’t a patch on your own efforts. This is basic profit-driven economics. And, it’s true, you get what you pay for.

But there is another, more subtle reason, that factory food doesn’t quite hit the mark. A reason that is in no way immediately apparent. And it has to do with our relationship with technology.

Robots that POUR!

For a dish to be easily manufactured in a factory, in large quantities, on a production line, it is crucial that the components, from raw ingredients to part finished elements, are able to be pumped.

How do you get the meat sauce for your lasagne from its cooking vat to the line where it’s assembled? The sauce, the pasta and the béchamel must be sent through a pipe, and often for a considerable distance. The pumping of certain traditional ingredients, such as butter, is impossible. As such, the food industry has had to identify, develop and sometimes engineer alternatives.

The infrastructure, the routing process has had such limitations that it has defined the very nature of the outcomes that are possible. But, as the presenters of the great BBC technology show of the 70s and 80s, Tomorrow’s World, used to say “that is, until now!”

The food factory of the future will be populated, not by machines that pump – but by robots that POUR. And with that simple change, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

By analysing how a chef systematically puts a dish together, and replicating that, with industrial upscaling, into a robotic process – and eradicating the notion that the conventional wisdom of “pumpability” was some kind of hard-and-fast rule. This new paradigm in food production could forgo the need for chemically-altered shortening agents. You know those ones that taste terrible (requiring added salt as a mask), have dubious health impacts but which, can  at least,  be pumped along a pipe.

Limitations in procurement

In business, and without doubt in the procurement business, we have precisely that same relationship with the technology available to us. We’ve been limited in the quality of the results we can produce because of how the tools and technologies we use are built.

Until recently, the software used in procurement has restricted the procurement professional to working in ways determined by how the software was written, and not by what is best for the outcome. This means procurement has become attenuated to these limitations and now accepts them as hard-and-fast rules.

A good example of this is the notion of “best of breed”.  This uses the most sophisticated software tool available for each step in the source to pay process. We’re indoctrinated to see lists of features and functions as the sole measure of suitability of software.

Dividing up the entire spend management process from strategy planning to invoice payment into a set of silos, and then equipping each step with the best tool for that task might at first seem to be a sound approach.  But this is only if you look at the steps in isolation. That’s just the same as looking at each ingredient in your recipe and only considering whether you can pump it around your factory.

How can tech make procurement processes more palatable?

In procurement, the separation of sourcing from contract into entirely different systems does nothing to promote positive outcomes and the isolated software components actively compound the difficulty of realizing savings and value.

However, technologies are emerging that are permitting us to look at the entire source to pay process as a single business requirement.  This allows us to consider how the various “ingredients” interact and work with each other to create the optimum result.

In the future, we will no longer be restricted to working the way the software dictates. Whilst a good part of the process may be run automatically, we will get to determine the ideal set of inputs and outputs to suit us.

The emergence of AI founded on big data, mobile, always-on connectivity and, crucially, the unification of strategic procurement and day-to-day purchasing into a single operational environment are changing the effectiveness of the procurement operation.

Challenging the status quo

By accepting the technological status quo as some kind of given, we will only continue to be fed the same poor diet.

Returning to the analogy, we don’t have to reject the notion of manufactured food entirely. Not if we can see that technology can actually make it better, possibly even better than we can do ourselves. There’s a thought!

The same applies completely to the idea of the automated supply chain. It needn’t (and won’t) be the death of Procurement. The smart use of new technology will actually give our industry new lease of life. As long as we stop adhering to the outdated technology rule book.

There is another way. The time is now.

Paul Blake is Senior Manager, Technology Product Marketing at GEP Worldwide. He’ll be speaking at the 2017 Big Ideas Summit next week. Join the conversation and register as a digital delegate here.

Does Insurance Against Failure Really Keep You Covered?

Is it really worth taking out insurance against system failure? Is the true value in a system that works first time, all the time?

space launch insurance

Download ‘Parting the Clouds‘, Smart by GEP’s latest whitepaper, to understand the difference between Cloud Solutions and SaaS Software.

There was a debate in the office that ran for a while when we were putting together the white paper that’s associated with this post.

“Yes,” said one camp, “we understand that there are technical, operational and architectural differences between Cloud and SaaS, but so what?”

In other words, why should Procurement care how their software “solution” is delivered to them, as long as it works?

“Fair point” said the others, “but if we believe the cloud model is inherently more secure, robust and future-proofed than the other, should we not call out that distinction?”

“Again,” came the response “if a SaaS implementation is backed by the necessary service level agreements from the supplier, what’s the difference?”

And that is when the subject of insuring space launches came up.

Bear with me.

Can Insurance Really Cover Everything?

Insurance is what we’re talking about, of course. Ensuring your Procurement operation can carry out the business at hand without interruption or disruption is a primary goal of selecting the right software system. The SLAs in the contract with the vendor are what comprise that insurance policy.

As is the case with everything in the insurance world, the greater the degree of protection you want, the higher the premiums.  But there is also a matter of the risk.

Seven per cent of satellites and spacecraft fail at launch. Recently some fairly dramatic launch failures have made the news. The ones that really make the headlines are those that involve the destruction of a payload that teams of scientists have been working on for years.

You can almost feel the despair and horror of watching a decade’s hard work destroyed in mere seconds.

Usually, but not always, these payloads are insured against multiple possible eventualities. Launch failure, failure on deployment, failure on landing – as in the case of the recent ESA Mars mission. Naturally the premiums are immense to insure an interplanetary mission. Often the insurance by no means covers the ultimate cost of the failure.

The many millions paid out after a launch failure may cover some of the financial stake invested by the agencies funding the project. However, there is essentially nothing that can recover the loss of the science that was to be delivered. The physical and material can be replaced, but the loss of the results is absolute.

Don’t Insure Against Failure – Do It Right First Time!

A far better form of insurance for space launches is a system that doesn’t go wrong. This is in fact the calculated risk taken in many projects. Catastrophic failure cannot be mitigated with cash, so better to spend the insurance premiums on building something that won’t explode.

And this is why it seemed an appropriate metaphor for the kind of SLA insurance under discussion. It’s all very well having the on-paper insurance for failure coverage, but that’s of little consequence if the financial value of the pay-out can do nothing to mitigate the real cost.

This is why, then, we feel there is a clear distinction between different interpretations of what “cloud” actually means. The fundamental underlying scalability, security, robustness and other forms of risk really should be considered when making a genuinely informed decision.

Comparing vendor contracts like for like you may see the same SLAs – system availability, uptime and access. But without a doubt the benefit of an SLA is in never having to rely on it.

If your procurement technology fails, are you really covered against all the potential losses? What risks should you be considering when adopting new Cloud technology?

Download Smart by GEP‘s latest whitepaper, ‘Parting the Clouds to find out all you need to know.

Why Procurement Can’t Have Its Head in the Cloud Anymore

Cloud computing is set to dominate every aspect of our personal and professional lives. So why do we still understand so little about it?

procurement head in the cloud

Download ‘Parting the Clouds‘, Smart by GEP’s latest whitepaper, to understand the difference between Cloud Solutions and SaaS Software.

The world’s biggest search engine provides a great window into human psychology, at least of those humans that it’s algorithms decide are sufficiently similar to oneself.

Try it, it’s fun.

Today, if I type “how” it immediately offers me “how…to roast pumpkin seeds”.  Interesting if not immediately an issue.

“Should” suggests “Should…I text him?” Oh, the angst of so many web users! The answer is, of course, no. But will that stop you texting? Of course not.

And “Did” rather disturbingly suggests “Did the killer clown purge happen?”

I’m not sure whatever happen to incredulity and scepticism but people will literally believe anything these days, it seems. And, apparently, the clowns are coming to get us all.

Cloud Computing – Why…?

As so often happens, all of that came about because I got side-tracked while typing another question into my search bar, “Cloud computing, why…”

I was intending to research why a cloud was first adopted as the symbol for the distributed computing concept as opposed to, say a web. But instead I was offered, “Cloud Computing, why…”:

  • do we need it?
  • use it?
  • it matters?
  • is it important?

These are all equally fascinating questions, and clearly asked sufficiently frequently to reach the top of the suggestions list.

Like so many rapid developments in technology such fundamental questions tend to get over-ridden by the pace of change and adoption.

Do we need it? It’s a bit late in the day to ask that question when increasingly we have no choice.

Why use it? Same answer, perhaps.

It matters because virtually every aspect of our lives is in some way connected to it and that in itself answers the fourth question.

Before the most basic of questions can be even asked, the offered answers already indicate some kind of fait accompli.

An even more basic question, that begins “Cloud computing what…” tellingly generates as its top two suggestions:

  1. Cloud computing what…is it? (naturally); and
  2. Cloud computing what…accountants need to know

Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

Cloud Computing – What Procurement Should Know

But it is perhaps an indication of where we are in this particular technology revolution. Cloud computing is set to dominate every aspect of our interaction with the world and traditional ways of doing business are being shaken up and transformed before we can even get satisfactory answers to the most basic of questions.

In our world of procurement the future seems certainly to be in the cloud.  All the software vendors, like ourselves are offering cloud solutions.

But does that mean procurement professionals know everything they need to know about what that means? Is it even relevant? Should you care whether your software is in the cloud or not? Does it matter, as long as it works?

In principal you shouldn’t have to worry about any of it.  But when it comes to making a decision, it’s probably best to be informed.

Cloud, it turns out, is very loosely defined and when selecting a “cloud” solution it’s important to know what you’re actually going to get.  Without a doubt the most important factor is what the software can do for you in delivering maximum value to the organisation. But just as important is knowing what questions to ask to find the best solution for you.

After all, if the internet is to be believed at face value we’re about to enter a new phase dominated by an even more terrifying technology. Clown computing anyone?

Do you know there was a difference between Cloud solutions and Software-as-a-Service? With all the Cloud technology available, sometimes it’s hard to keep track.

Download Smart by GEP‘s latest whitepaper, ‘Parting the Clouds to find out all you need to know.

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley

Why are we happy to watch movies with AI and robots, but feel disturbed by near-identical humanoid robots in real-life? Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.

Uncanny Valley

Considering the robot theme of my last two posts, I was somewhat pleased last week to have picked up a radio show from the BBC in their series ‘The Why Factor’ called “Fear of Robots” in which they make some of the same points concerning our assumptions that robots will always be benign.

The presenter found himself somewhat disquieted by a robotic seal pup, and completely disturbed by an almost-human android.

He had, so the saying goes, entered the uncanny valley. Although we humans react (and sometimes over-react) very positively to human-like features – cartoon characters, dolls and the like – we have a generally very bad response to simulations which are very, very nearly, but not completely, life-identical.

The Uncanny Valley

Despite the extraordinary advances in CGI, many filmgoers find greater satisfaction and easier suspension of disbelief in watching old-style animation, than movies which seek to recreate the real world.

The characters just don’t move right, or look right, or something.  The difference is so slight and subtle, yet rings huge alarm bells in our heads.

One contributor to the radio show described very-near-human robots as giving us the same heebie-jeebies as walking corpses might. After all, they are cold, their skin tone is wrong, they don’t move naturally. Of course they freak us out.

Away from the uncanny valley, though, we love the broader approximations to human behaviour.  As we turn away in discomfort from the close-to-real, we delight in the more grotesque caricature.

It seems we’re more comfortable with the messy, chaotic, imperfect real-world, than a more sterile near-perfection.  Perhaps that speaks to a deep aspect of human nature, something that we software developers might do well to pay heed to.

Emotional Reactions

There are clear cases of this emotional reaction to human-like behaviour in the use of software, especially at work.

The response that many, if not all of us, had to that [expletive deleted] animated paper clip when it popped up and said, “I see you’re trying to write a letter, would you like some help with that?” was no different to the reaction we’d have to the co-worker who would keep dropping by to say, “You don’t want to do it like that. Do you?”.

Approximating the real world, including human behaviour, when developing the software that we need to interact with, is thus a complex matter.

Get it right and the user experience is one of delight and sustained engagement. But go too far and users are actively put-off by the feeling that the software itself is somehow working against us.

At GEP we’ve been working on user experience technology that puts the human at the heart of process.  We are, of course, some way from software that has a human personality. And although the possibilities are immense, they are not without risk.

Imagine sitting down at your desk each day to find that overnight everything has been rearranged to make it slightly more convenient for you.  Perhaps so you don’t have to reach so far for the telephone, or your chair is aligned more ergonomically to the monitor.

Such things could dramatically improve our day…or screw it up entirely, leaving us feeling irritated or even violated.  As creatures of habit we naturally reach for the place where the telephone is, which is not always ideal.  It just is.

A Real-Life, Virtual Assistant

But there is another, more subtle, set of possibilities that we might permit to assist us without, to be frank, freaking us out.

You might imagine an assistant who begins by learning how you work, where the shortcuts are that you naturally take, and how other might be offered to speed things along.   Then when the time is right, you assistant might suggest you have some choices, all in good time, no rush.  The assistant makes notes of how they can improve your life and recommends rather than enforces changes.

In time you might start noticing that there is less clutter around and you’re completing tasks faster without having been trained, directed or instructed.  User consent to small changes that help keep things tidy could be far more effective than wholesale re-ordering of menus and icons.

It’s something we have to keep in mind when developing software that should be designed to help you work.  There is a fine but definite line between being helpful and just downright irritating.

It reminds me of the wonderful scene in Father Ted where a sales assistant tries to tempt Mrs. Doyle with an automatic tea-maker.   “It will take the misery out of making tea.”  Her response?  “Maybe I like the misery!”

The Three Laws of Robotics Aren’t. So What Now?

The Three Laws of Robotics, as created by Asimov, don’t exist. But, as we move to a more automated world, should robots and AI fall under greater oversight?

Automation Robotics

Download the latest GEP white paper on the drive to an automated world here

In my previous post on the subject of the coming era of robotic process automation, I mentioned Asimov’s seminal sci-fi work The Caves of Steel. In it Asimov wrote of The City as the dominant force in human lives of the future:

“The City was the acme of efficiency, but it made demands of its inhabitants. It asked them to live in a tight routine and order their lives under a strict and scientific control.”

Asimov’s suggestion that there is a cost to progress might be seen as prophetic, but I think he was just one of a long line of writers who have warned that the future might be a bit ropey if we just pursue change in the name of progress, for its own sake.

But for all his attempts to conjure a dystopian image, Asimov was fundamentally a “technoptimist” with a repeating theme in his stories that progress would ultimately always be positive. In fact, his philosophy of robotics – and his “three laws” – have been so tightly woven into modern culture that it seems we hardly give a thought to the potential threats to our way of life, and perhaps to our lives from the advent of a totally automated future.

An Automated Future

Without labouring the point too much, the Three Laws of Robotics essentially mean that, in Asimov’s world, robots are inherently safe, trustworthy and beneficial. In fact, it is simply impossible to build a robot that does not comply with the three laws, the very architecture of the robotic AI being hard-wired around them.

It is purest fiction, of course, although to speak to some enthusiasts for the subject, Asimov’s Laws really do exist.  But they really don’t, and that could spell trouble.

Life imitating art is all very well, but there is nothing whatsoever to dictate that an automated future can be assured as a “good thing.”

On the same day as I’m writing this piece, there are two news stories on the BBC website. In one, it is announced that robots will be working in two Belgian hospitals as receptionists, guiding visitors to the correct locations.

In the other, we’re told, a researcher at a university in the USA has built a robot that autonomously decides whether to inflict pain and bodily harm on a live human subject.

That the microcode for the two systems could be somehow swapped, or cross-fertilised, is the stuff of real dystopian sci-fi and, whilst highly implausible, it does raise questions about whether some progress is happening without sufficient oversight.

Robotics & Automation in Procurement

There is disquiet in many circles about the use of drones in warfare, and the step from human-operated to robotic drone is really only a matter of systems integration.

There are no Three Laws to guarantee that AI, robots and automation will be to our benefit.  Yet they may very well be.

There are grounds to be hugely optimistic about what technology can do for us, from carbon capture and storage, to non-polluting safe transportation, to dramatically improved health and longevity in the poorest parts of the world.

Even in our little corner of the world we call Procurement, the sky’s the limit if we want to pursue automation. The potential to dramatically transform how we operate is very great indeed, and only a matter of investment and a few person-years of effort out of our reach.

But in all of this, it seems to me, it is we who should direct and dictate how that progress is delivered and what it actually does.   Instead of being passive consumers and falling in line with the next developments, which may substantially change our working lives, the procurement industry has an opportunity to map out what the future could and should look like, and how we want the machines to work. For us.

GEP Banner

Robotics are the future, and the sky’s the limit for automation in Procurement, say GEP. For more on this, download the latest white paper research.

For more information on high-performing procurement software, visit the Smart by GEP website.

Resistance is Futile…Or is it?

Is resistance to automation of procurement processes futile? Or are we missing the benefits that automation will ultimately bring to the profession?

AI Resistance

You can download the latest GEP white paper on the drive to an automated world, and why resistance is unnecessary, here.

The cannon of science fiction is full of tales of the battle between liberty, exemplified by human free will (including the freedom to screw everything up royally) and tyranny, portrayed as submission to an overwhelming force.

In many cases the “assimilation into the collective” or whatever, is not an unconditionally negative prospect. The promise of an end to suffering and provision of all human needs is often conveyed as the ‘upside’ of the deal to subjugate humanity to forces beyond our understanding.

Automation – The Dark Side?

From Childhood’s End to The Matrix, there’s a definite cost-benefit analysis to be carried out by the protagonists during their struggles to overcome the supposedly overwhelming power of the dark side of the story.

In fact, in the latter, the movie’s clichéd traitor – they even named the character “Cypher” – sells out the heroes on the promise of a return to the simulated ‘real’ world with the words, “Ignorance is bliss.”  And when asked by the agent of evil, “Then we have a deal?”, he replies, “I don’t wanna remember nothing.  Nothing! You understand?”

There is even a branch of anthropic philosophy than contends that our reality is likely to be a simulation run by an advanced post-human intelligence. As coherent and convincing as some of that reasoning appears to be, the fact remains that there is no possible way this hypothesis can be proved or disproved.

Like all matters of faith, this notion is utterly irrelevant when we attempt to construct a set of rules that will let us predict what will happen in (what certainly appears to be) the real world.

Rise of the Machines?

Recently it has been suggested at some of the procurement industry’s leading conferences that business is beginning to enter a phase that will be dominated by artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, and lead to the eventual replacement of the humans in the process.

Dissenting voices are heard to cry “nonsense,” or more colloquial versions of the same, but the arguments are nonetheless compelling. Only this time, they have a certain amount of evidence to back them up.

It is true. The technology exists today, in varying states of maturity, which – if synthesised into a single entity – could effectively do away with human involvement in the supply chain. From AI-run decision making, to automated manufacture and delivery, to fuzzy logic-based distribution of spend across a supply base, the characteristics of today’s procurement activity could, quite readily, be encoded and turned over to a software overlord.

Other sci-fi classics, the likes of the movie ‘Logan’s Run’, and the book ‘The Caves of Steel’, deal with the machine-run production of goods and services in equal measure to the imposing of external force on human freedom. And as life imitates art, there will naturally be greater degrees of this emerging.  Today’s 3D printer is surely tomorrow’s Star Trek Replicator.

The End for Procurement?

But, whatever the generations of the future will accept as everyday technology, the idea that we’re approaching a defining moment, beyond which procurement professionals will be irrelevant, must be viewed with a good degree of scepticism.

There’s no doubt automation works really, really well when it comes to replacing easily mapped and understood processes, from assembling a car from a standard kit of parts, to processing a contract-compliant purchase order through to invoice payment.

But the simple fact is we just don’t understand enough about the world, human behaviour, the markets, the climate, indeed any part of the future, to be able to encapsulate all our business rules into a single algorithm that the machine can follow to manage supply and demand for the rest of time.

The landscape in which our largest corporations operate is truly chaotic, in a mathematical sense, and deriving a simple set of rules to automate demand and supply across such organisations is, I think, beyond us today.

One of the very drivers of modern prosperity is the ability to “make a buck” and any kind of completely automated process necessarily eliminates margin at source. Negotiation between buyer and supplier AIs will not only be mind-bogglingly rapid, but likely to end in stalemate – and the same stalemate as the last time.

If we lose negotiation, then it seems to me that we will lose innovation, motivation and the result will be stagnation.

Resistance is Unnecessary

The future will be radically different to the present.  It always has been and always will be, and all predictions as to what it will look like are inevitably wrong. Including this one.

But with that uncertainty comes opportunity. Automation in procurement will certainly be a big thing in the future, but it will be complex, it will be messy and it will need human brains to make it work, and not just to write the code.

The human brains that work in procurement today are those that will guide the whole world of supply forward into a brave new world. Reports of procurement’s demise have been overstated, naturally, but we can still take control and make the machines work for us.

Resistance isn’t futile. It’s unnecessary.

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Automation doesn’t mean the end for procurement, and the benefits of automating processes vastly outweigh the drawbacks, say GEP. For more on this, download the latest white paper research.

For more information on high-performing procurement software, visit the Smart by GEP website.

Raise Your Glasses to the Cloud

Does being stuck in our ways, and doing things “the way they’ve always been done”, mean procurement misses out on the benefits of the Cloud?

The Cloud

You can download the latest GEP white paper on the impact of cyber security, and the benefits of a cloud-based procurement technology solution here.

You can buy flip-flops that have a bottle opener built in to the sole.  Notwithstanding the sartorial choice of sporting said footwear, the synthesis of the two household objects into one ‘solution’ was clearly something born of necessity, or desperation, or more likely both.

The crown cap on a beer bottle, the correct name for which is actually a misnomer – the ‘crown cork’ – is 124 years old and still going strong. The ubiquity of the particular type of stopper means that almost everyone can access a tool designed with the express purpose of removing one, but finding oneself on the beach without one can lead to some unusual inventions, or some risky and occasionally painful improvisations.

Bottle Opener Flip Flops

Necessity – the Mother of Innovation

What is surprising is that it took seventy years for someone to come up with the bright idea of combining the crown cap with a screw thread on the bottle – negating the need for a tool altogether, and even today bottles of beer that one can open with a simple twist are far from the norm.

Interestingly, that most useful combination is still limited to mass-production, mass-market brands, and rarely or never to be found on small-scale, independent, or craft brewery products.

The same, of course, applies to wine. There is unquestionably a huge resistance to screw caps on premium products from the industry, the consumer and the media alike.  Until, that is, you actually talk to the real experts.  Not the self-appointed armchair connoisseurs – I’m not being denigrating, I’m definitely guilty-as-charged – but those who really know their stuff.

I’ve met wine producers, merchants and critics all of whom are desperate for the screw cap to be considered as acceptable at the “high end”, as at the mass-market end, because the product is only better as a result.

Consider the labour-of-love winemaker who has to play Russian Roulette with their prized vintage every time a piece of possibly-contaminated tree bark gets stuffed in the neck of a bottle.

But, on the whole, we consumers feel it cheapens the product, and the lack of ritual and satisfying “pop” detracts from our enjoyment of the contents. The real experts say it’s just snobbery – and, of course, they’re right. But today there remains a relatively low ceiling on what a restaurant can charge for a bottle with a screw cap. Good wines simply don’t come in screw-capped bottles.

What finally convinced me of the ridiculousness of that position was finding myself with wine but without means of access. Today I find myself tutting in a very English manner if I find I need to go get a corkscrew to open a bottle.

Migrating to the Cloud

I find myself in the same mindset when thinking about the Cloud.  For a while I felt somehow discomfited by the idea of putting all my files, and music and images and books and data in the cloud, preferring instead to create my own personal cloud of NAS drives and IP sockets so that I could access what I wanted, wherever I was, but I would still ‘have’ all my data.

How daft is that? If my NAS drive goes down (which it has) who has to run around in a panic trying to fix it? If I move house or country (which I have) who has to handle the business of relocating and reconfiguring equipment to deal with the change?

You see the point, I’m sure. I was on a hiding to nothing. Insisting on a model of how data storage should be, because that’s how it’s always been, supported by some spurious mythology of physical location, is no different to saying screw-caps cheapen the experience of drinking wine. Nonsense.

Cutting away all the snobbery and enjoying wine starts and ends with glass to mouth. What happens up to that point might be interesting, but it’s not in the least relevant.

Now I find myself tutting in overly-dramatic fashion if the service or software I need is NOT available in the Cloud. Install? Oh, really!

Cloud computing is a loaded subject. There are genuine concerns, and genuine things to be concerned about, when considering moving business critical systems into a new environment.

But, let’s make no bones about it, you need to be thinking about those things anyway. The threats and risks won’t go away if you choose not to pay them any attention.  But the opportunities sure will.

We’ve applied a great deal of brainpower to design and build a cloud procurement platform that delivers a massive bang-to-buck ratio, in a secure and highly performant environment, and our two-part paper, ‘Securing Procurement in the Cloud of Tomorrow‘, is designed to help business and IT people alike start a meaningful dialogue on the subject. The Cloud is here, it’s huge, and growing.

But even now I catch myself out. Trying to improve performance of my video editing capability at work I spoke to our splendid and ever-cheerful head of IT about getting some kind of box dedicated for the purpose.

“Have you thought about a cloud video-edit-suite solution?” he said.

Well, d’uh!

Enterprises should be moving their procurement processes to the Cloud, say GEP. For more on this, download the latest white paper research.

For more information on high-performing procurement software, visit the Smart by GEP website.

Cloud Computing – Don’t Get Stranded with Sharks

If you think that cloud computing is not for you, you may be left stranded…with sharks.

The Cloud - Sharks

You can download the latest GEP white paper on the impact of cyber security, and the benefits of a cloud-based procurement technology solution here.

“If you think you’ve seen this movie before, you are right.” So said David Linthicum, author of ‘Cloud Computing and SOA Convergence in Your Enterprise‘.

He went on to say, “Cloud computing is based on the time-sharing model we leveraged years ago before we could afford our own computers. The idea is to share computing power among many companies and people, thereby reducing the cost of that computing power to those who leverage it. The value of time share and the core value of cloud computing are pretty much the same, only the resources these days are much better and more cost effective.”

In biological science there is a concept called convergent evolution, which essentially describes how different organisms have independently evolved the same solution to a particular problem.  The similarity in body plan between sharks and dolphins is a perfect example. Despite one arising from a fish and the other from a land mammal, the particular circumstances of life in the pelagic ocean have resulted in the gradual adaptation through survival of both groups into superficially similar morphologies.

New Era Solutions

The cloud computing model of this era is indeed offering a similar solution to a similar problem that the shared computer access model used to. Indeed I recall having to book computer time in my university days, and that on a machine with a fraction of the computing power of my wristwatch!

In that case it was simply a matter of limited availability of the machines themselves and sharing the cost between groups was the only model that made sense. Today the equation is a different one.  Raw computing power and data storage are dirt cheap…

As an aside, a quick sketch calculation confirms that data storage twenty five years ago cost around seventy thousand times the equivalent cost today. (To check my working: I installed a 100MB hard drive in a business system in 1990. It weighed 120Kg and cost about £1100 Sterling. Last week, I put a 1TB card in my camera for just under £140.)

…but it isn’t the cost of the machine resources any more that are the limiting factor. It’s the overhead. The cost of management and operation, the risk of failure and consequential loss, and the inertia lumped on the enterprise in times of radical and accelerating change.

Putting Software to Work

What is driving business systems into an effective shared computing model in the cloud is not the need for more resources at lower cost (although this is undoubtedly an unplanned upside). No, it is the need to decouple the business processes from the technology.

Yes, of course, the technology – and by that we mean software of course – is central to the business process. I mean, do we really need to say e-this and e-that anymore? But in the past our business processes were determined BY the software. Today cloud software can give us the flexibility to conduct business how we think best and the software can be put to work for us.

Perhaps that’s sounds a bit too rosy-tinted for some.  But the fact remains, the risk and cost of making the wrong decision in selecting a cloud software provider, is the merest fraction of what it was in the old, customised-behind-the-firewall days.

A recent conversation I had with a consultant suggested one client of theirs was looking to migrate their systems as-is to an SaaS platform over the next five to seven years. In that same time, a more decisive CIO could make the wrong decision about a cloud provider twice(!), and still be further advanced in ROI by the time that migration is over.

Overcoming Intertia

So, the imperative to move into the cloud is compelling but the skepticism around security can apply the brakes in many organisations.

Because cloud computing evolved from a different ancestor to the shared computer model – out of the chaotic, anarchic, everyman’s internet, run by nobody-knows-who, instead of out of the traditional, conservative club of private supercomputers run by accredited Systems Analysts –, and because of a slew of high-profile hacking cases, there remains a core of uncertainty in the procurement industry.

To that end we work closely with our customers to help them understand where the security risks today really lie, and the greatest of these is inertia.

As I think about the case of the company taking upwards of five years to take what they have today and put it online, I can’t get the image out of my head of a diver coming up from a leisurely reef excursion only to see the dive boat heading for the horizon.  Of course, if he can’t tell whether that fin belongs to a dolphin or a shark, you now know why.

It will take a company with very deep pockets and very great resilience in a rapidly changing world to be able to ride out the cost of being left that far behind.

There do remain reasonable questions around technical security that should be asked and answered in any selection process, and our two-part paper Securing Procurement in the Cloud of Tomorrow is designed to help that conversation.

Vivek Kundra, former federal CIO of the United States said, “Cloud computing is often far more secure than traditional computing, because [cloud providers] can attract and retain cyber-security personnel of a higher quality than many governmental agencies.”

The question is not whether, or even when. It’s how.

Enterprises should be moving their procurement processes to the Cloud, say GEP. For more on this, download the latest white paper research.

For more help on avoiding the sharks in procurement software, visit the Smart by GEP website.

Procurement Software – Weighed Down by Unnecessary Ice?

Is the procurement software created to make jobs and lives easier actually doing the opposite? Is it all weighed down with a glut of unnecessary features?

Procurement Software - Unnecessary Ice

Paul Blake leads the technology product marketing team at GEP, a leading global provider of procurement technology solutions.

Have you ever wondered how many power stations are needed to make all the ice that no one uses? Or how about this: what does the internet weigh?

These are the sort of questions that I have found coming to mind on long journeys. I know, it’s sad, isn’t it?

Another one was, what is the quickest way to transfer a really huge amount of data from one place to another?

Answering the Abstract

You’d be forgiven if such questions fall into the category of “things I never think about,” but increasingly the answers to seemingly abstract questions might indicate the kind of thinking we’ll have to do to solve more complex problems that really matter.

The journey that brought our opening question to mind was one homeward bound after a procurement conference, one where I had engaged in a fascinating conversation with some specialists in procuring energy. We all know that one firm’s indirect can be another’s direct category, and energy is a perfect example.

The power appetite of some businesses is simply staggering and the strategising and planning effort that go into managing what, for us, is such a trivial everyday concern is equally impressive.  More on energy in a moment but…

How DO you transfer a vast amount of data in the quickest way possible? The answer may surprise you. FedEx. (Other global courier firms are available.)

100 terabytes of data is a large, but not unimaginable, amount. Given that you can buy a card today for your camera that can store 960GB, then you’re pushing a terabyte (more or less) into something the size of a thumbnail. Stick a hundred of those in a padded envelope and you can have it anywhere within a 25 mile radius within the hour or anywhere on the planet within 24.

A 500-megabit broadband connection would take you the best part of three weeks to send that much data to your neighbour, let alone to your colleagues 7 time zones away.

As the complexity of business information increases and subsequent data volumes explode will we begin to see a hybrid solution to data transfer? SneakerNet 2.0?

Combatting Waste

Equally, as energy becomes more of a limiting factor, businesses may look for novel methods to combine traditional and emerging technologies into a solution that works for a new era. Some years ago I was surprised to find, in my local DIY store, a display of low energy compact fluorescent light bulbs on sale for, if I recall correctly 30p (50¢) each.

As I puzzled at how they could be sold so cheaply, a fellow shopper pointed out that they were branded with the logo of a major utility and his comment was, “which is cheaper, give these away at 30p each or build another power station?”

When you do a bit of scratch mathematics on the back of an envelope, and realise how much energy is spent putting ice in places where it doesn’t need to be (a couple of kilos, for example in every hotel room in the place I’ve just stayed as part of their “turn down” service), then you start to think about a whole host of other seemingly trivial things, which add up to huge profligate waste.

Cocktail umbrellas? Sachets of salt and pepper served with in-flight meals that nobody ever opens but which all get discarded? The printing of the words “allergy advice: contains mustard” on jars of mustard (it’s true).

Makes you think doesn’t it?  All that energy adds up to a vast amount of fuel burned for no really compelling reason whatsoever. In solving one small apparent problem (like the inability to get through a night without some ice nearby), we can create another that is much trickier to solve, and they require us to be creative and develop different, perhaps non-obvious solutions.

Perhaps nobody would immediately think of using a traditional parcel service to move data about, or giving away energy saving devices instead of producing more energy.

The Foibles of Features

When it comes to developing procurement software the obvious path is to develop features and functions. Capabilities if you like.  The tools to let you do stuff.  This is natural for developers, it’s what they do.

What they may actually be doing is attempting to solve small problems that aren’t necessarily real in any significant sense (the operational equivalent of running out of ice while you sleep), and at the same time creating a much bigger, more intractable issue.

In trying to deliver every bell and whistle in order to reach feature parity with a competitor, technologists end up building monstrously complex systems that actually hinder the very process they were intended to facilitate.

But perhaps there is a different approach. How about, instead of developing an ever more elaborate set of features in some kind of arms race, we look at developing processes; processes and the means to shape them to suit a business?

What would that mean in real terms? Perhaps the future of business and procurement software is about making connections between people and groups work better, instead of creating more and more levels of complexity in the tools they use.

Shifting Thinking

My contention is that one way to dramatically improve productivity in the modern work place would be to outlaw email. Heretical, perhaps, and probably impossible to implement. But I bet most of you reading this are both shuddering in horror at the thought and, at the same time, recognising the truth of the situation – that email is the static that swamps our day, the noise that is disrupting the signal, so to speak.

Technology has the capability to drive improvements in business but it has also the capability to tie us down in thrall to evermore complex tasks and activities. When looking to what we might develop next, we should not lose sight of the human aspect that is central to what procurement is all about – establishing and managing relationships across an entire supply chain for mutual benefit.

Whilst not proposing a sudden panacea to cure all ills, this approach might start to move us towards better, more natural productivity, and away from being weighed down by increasing complexities.

But that new idea would require a shift in thinking in the customer too. The process of procurement software selection has for too long been dominated by an almost obsessive compulsion to assess suitability by ticking boxes against features and functions, instead of an examination of how a company’s problems might be solved.

Enlightened procurement pros are starting to “get” this idea. They are looking to their own operations to see what the really big problems are, and getting to grips with how to solve them using procurement software as an enabler, rather than as an end in itself.

Time to Lighten the Load

So how much does the internet weigh? Not the server farms or storage devices, or drives or memory chips involved, but the data itself? It might seem like an utterly meaningless question. Surely an acre-sized data centre weighs the same whether it is full, or as empty as the day it came on-line? Well, apparently not. Data requires energy to exist. And every megabyte of data you add to your cloud corpus, adds just a little more energy.

The world’s most famous equation tells us E=mc2. Therefore, every unit of energy you require to store a unit of data, equates to a corresponding unit of mass. A full data centre really does weigh more than an empty one, but of course only by a tiny, tiny amount.

Correspondingly, every email we receive, and every feature we add to our already complex systems, adds just a little bit more mass, literally. We’ll never notice it, of course, but every time we feel weighed down by an information overload, or stymied by ridiculously complex procurement software, at least we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we’re not imagining ALL of it. And one day we might work together to lighten the load.

For more high-energy thinking on procurement software, visit the Smart by GEP website.

Why Automation Can Help Procurement Achieve Its Goals

Automation is frequently talked about in manufacturing, but rarely in the field of procurement. Could it be the key to helping procurement achieve better outcomes?

Automation and Robotisation

Download GEP’s white paper on achieving P2P Excellence through Procurement and Finance alignment here.

Czech writer Karel Čapek was the first person to use the term “robot”.  In his 1920 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, he conjured the image of synthetic humans, carrying out the tasks that original humans no longer cared to do, yet remaining largely happy in their work. For a while.

Inevitably things went South, so to speak, and the robots learned to resent their drudgery.

Stories of automation leading to unforeseen misfortune are at least as old as Goethe’s 1797 poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Yet automation remains a goal, if one that is not without challenges.

Automation in Procurement

Automation is often seen as a good thing, because it accelerates processes (sometimes) and frees up valuable human resources (sometimes). In the context of manufacturing, introducing automation has been hugely successful because of the requirement for a production line to continually repeat identical tasks within exact specifications. Automation is therefore understood to be just that, the effective ‘robotisation’ of a process.

In a sense this is also desirable in Procurement because a good percentage of the tasks and processes are repetitive and of the same type. However, that is not the same as being identical, and it is often less than desirable to force a range of different variants into a single model.

Thus, what we need is the acceleration of the process and the reduction in administrative overhead but still maintain the unique aspects of each event in the process. This is where automation gets tricky.

Importance of the ‘Right’ Process

From the perspective of software design, the practitioner must be able to automate those parts of the process which are identical time after time, and permit the customisation of those parts that are unique, whilst accelerating the whole.

This is where an understanding of Procurement (and associated processes) is key in the design and implementation of the software.  As one of our senior project managers put it, “It is not a good idea to use automation to accelerate a broken process.”

What he means by that is this: whereas in manufacturing, the process of machining a particular widget by hand is already the ‘right’ way to do it, and automation simply repeats the task; in Procurement it cannot be taken as read that the sourcing methodology, contracting process or requisition-to-invoice workflow, are in any way the ‘right’, most efficient, or best, way to go.

In reality, then, for procurement software to provide a solution it must involve not only automation, but transformation. Using the imposition of an automating technology to review where the challenges in the current manual processes lie is a vital part of any such program. That way the eventual automation of the task will be more accurate and, ultimately, more useful.

Accounting for Whole Process

Another key consideration is best made with a manufacturing analogy again. If the entire process from raw material to finished goods is automated, then the rate of arrival of the end-product at the packing and shipping station will be considerably greater than in the pre-automation set up. If account hasn’t been taken of the impact ‘downstream’, then one can foresee the conveyor belt of products backing up and overflowing.

In Procurement this can be a real issue. Accelerating the order-to-invoice process is all very well for purchaser and supplier, but if Accounts Payable are periodically swamped with invoices to be paid, there can be significant impacts on administration overheads and, indeed, cash flow.

Furthermore, an accelerated sourcing process only works if the suppliers are on board, and a super-efficient bid-to-contract process will only work if the company’s attorneys buy in to it.

Thus automation is far from being a matter of “install software, use software, improve efficiency, get ROI”. Get it wrong and it can be a matter of “install software, use software badly, make matters worse, stop using software, can project, start again”.

But get it right and the “automation” program can see dramatic impacts on time to reach savings goals, supplier engagement and performance, and cash flow management downstream.

GEP have produced a white paper on the challenges facing the marriage of convenience between Procurement and Finance which explores these ideas further. You can download it here.