progress

Progress or Perish: How to Push our Profession to the Next Level

Traditional procurement roles will perish if significant progress isn’t made. But how can the profession progress enough to deliver true value?

By @lindsayhenwood on Unsplash

By Ben Tulloch, Managing Director at Accenture

Ask any business executive in Australia how procurement has made their life easier, and they’re more likely to tell you that it’s been a roadblock.

Despite the profession’s brilliant minds, appetite for improvement, and advanced solutions from AI to blockchain and beyond, only 20 per cent of procurement tech projects down under prove successful. The issue, it seems, is something more deep-seated. The modern Australian enterprise is not geared for rapid evolution.

By the time Aussie companies have dedicated years of effort and distraction to available solutions, the market has advanced beyond recognition. What we really need is the ability to rapidly prototype and test ideas, implement them at scale and do it all again next month.

A lack of agile skills has left Australia lagging behind the EU and US. In fact, we’re probably at a 3/10 in terms of our capabilities and maturity, still using procurement tech and processes that harken to the 1970s. As we’re so late in implementing the basics, how can we even begin to place ourselves ahead of the curve?

Progress: The role of the traditional procurement manager will perish if it doesn’t change

There’s a fearmongered risk that jobs will be lost to advanced technologies. At some level, that’s correct: if a theatre nurse implemented AI to predict, trigger and record stock orders in the blockchain, they wipe out the P2P function of procurement. But this doesn’t spell disaster, it opens up new opportunities for growth.

If we can remove the administrative element of the job, procurement professionals can progress from a traditional role and take a more strategic view, rather than just buying stuff. They can leave a legacy and make a tangible difference – socially, environmentally and economically. For example, readily available blockchain solutions have the ability to eradicate modern slavery by providing ultimate transparency across supply chains.

But the skills needed to run a digital control tower or AI stock predictor are different. We’re going to need system integrators, program managers, design thinkers, full-stack engineers, mathematicians and AI experts. How do you rapidly shift engrained national mindsets – quickly and cheaply? A culture of co-design, ecosystem partners and using the success of tangible use cases to build trust are key.

‘Design Thinking’ is the Next Step

One of Accenture’s government clients had small armies of people trying (and failing) to keep up with updating pricing lists. Place an order, and it was most likely attached to the wrong stock number. As a result, buyers lost trust in suppliers and vice versa.

Now imagine if those master pricing lists were housed on the blockchain – transparent, secure and updated in real time? That technology exists, it’s cheap and takes only weeks to implement. But this isn’t a tech problem, it’s a change problem.

In the startup ecosystem, design thinking is in their DNA. Even three months is considered a long time, and products evolve continuously to keep up with market changes. These newer generations of Australian innovators would laugh our outdated tech and processes out the room, instead turning to a slick new app or platform that can be pushed to market within weeks.

But if procurement brought a startup solution to the CMO of a large Australian enterprise, it would likely be met with, “they’re not on our preferred supplier list.”

The Business Case for Innovation

The return on investment for agile solutions is not only profound, it’s immediate. We’ve been working with a major airline in Australia on using AI to predict, prioritise and elevate invoices for large suppliers, and manage changes in very complex supply chain relationships. In doing so, they’ve removed all paper processes, increased transparency, and seen a significant ROI in only three months.

Another major telco client has been tackling customer service with an omnichannel conversational platform that can replicate complex human conversation, comprehend voice, text and multiple trains of thoughts – not just spit out an answer to a direct question. Within months, the bot has compressed contract changes from 3.5 days to 8 minutes. This relatively inexpensive solution has potential solutions for the entire procurement profession.

The best part is that the platform was in live testing by week three. That’s on a live contract with live scaling and live data, three weeks after the idea was suggested. That’s design thinking in action.

The Art of the Impossible

Showcasing the impossible is powerful. If I utter the word ‘blockchain’ to an old-school Australian organisation, they’re likely to palm it off as a futuristic dream. But show them a functional, cheap and efficient blockchain contract in action and they’ll get it. Demystify advanced technology for your workforce, and take the objection off the table.

Collaborate with industry partners to forge a path forward that benefits everyone – not just your company. Start with the problem, and isolate solutions. Sure, there are technical and personal risks involved in evolution. But there are risks with everything in business. Not every idea has to be rolled out permanently across your entire enterprise. But not taking steps towards the future is the biggest risk of all.

At this month’s Big Ideas Summit, procurement professionals will be coming together to understand, challenge and solve the profession’s biggest problems. I’ll be speaking to the power of design thinking in facing the future of procurement, and how an “Industry X.0” mindset can pave the way forward.

The bottom line is that if you do nothing, people will find their way around you. The best way forward is to recognise that you’re not alone – Australia lags behind with you – and then get on the front foot and be ready to progress.