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