Revolutionizing Procurement’s User Experience With AI

Scott Pezza

It’s difficult to boil down the full experience of working with procurement applications into one pithy phrase. When we know what we want, but need to wade through oceans of irrelevant data to get it, we may think less is more. When we aren’t exactly sure where to find what we need and have difficulty locating relevant sources then, well, more is actually more.

Without really knowing it, we’ve created a pretty restrictive experience for ourselves. We need to define what’s needed; we need to know where to look; we need to find the information; and we need to bring it back to incorporate into whatever task we were working on.

This is our user experience. It is cumbersome. It is tedious. It is manual. And thankfully for us, it doesn’t need to stay that way.

Rethinking user experience: three key pieces

While the technology that makes it possible to revolutionize the user experience may be complex from an engineering perspective, what it actually does is pretty simple. If we focus on what’s truly changed, we see that artificial intelligence (AI) impacts three main things: what we see, what we don’t see, and how we interact with our systems. Let’s take a quick look at each of those elements:

1. What we see. The best way to think about AI’s impact on procurement is that it augments or improves the way we do things. Its goal is to make procurement professionals more informed and better equipped for their jobs. This means bringing them user experience elements such as:

  • Tailored content. Intelligent solutions show you the information you need to know, but this isn’t simply about designing a better dashboard. By applying machine learning to analyze the way different functions work, AI-enabled solutions know what information is important to you without your IT team having to design a customized screen for you. The system knows and automatically presents you with the information you need at the right time and place.
  • Guidance and recommendations. In any complex process like issuing a new RFP, there’s always a question of either “what comes next?” or “what should come next?” That’s where AI-enabled systems can really shine, learning from past behavior to understand process flows, business rules, and even things like sourcing goals (such as targets for sustainable or minority-owned suppliers), which can be seamlessly offered to you as options on how to best proceed. Everything is streamlined right within the system, keeping you focused and efficient as you move from beginning to end.
  • Prepopulated forms. This one is deceptively powerful. By understanding what you need and using natural language processing to extract information from both systems and unstructured documents (like attached Word files), AI-enabled systems can reduce your manual effort by filling in forms for you automatically. You simply review and tweak as necessary. No more manual searching. No more data entry. No more repetitive rework starting from scratch each time you kick off any given process.

2. What we don’t see. When less really is more, AI-enabled systems can help keep you focused on what really matters. Using AI-enabled systems, you’ll see a lot less:

  • Irrelevant information. When the system is focused on what you actually need, it can avoid showing you what you don’t. Understanding which commodities a category manager cares about will teach the system which indices to display on a personalized dashboard, for example. Track the things you need to track and ignore the ones you don’t.
  • Inaccurate information. One area where AI has a huge positive impact outside of tailoring what information you see is in improving the quality of data you have available. This is where spend-data classification comes in, and machine learning allows it to be done on a scale – and at a speed – that is simply not possible when humans are doing the reviewing. This means you have access to and can have greater confidence in more data than ever before. And this all feeds back into the learning algorithms and tailored, in-content interfaces discussed earlier.

3. How we interact. Screens, menus, shortcodes, and report runs – they’ve been around forever. There’s a reason that procurement job listings so often ask for experience using specific systems: they’re complicated and are often a barrier to entry all to themselves. AI-enabled solutions offer a few ways to change this paradigm completely:

  • Natural language. Simply put, you can type (or even talk) to your procurement system just like you would to a colleague. Rather than navigating some hierarchy like Document > Create > Create New RFP and then searching through a series of drop-downs to define what you’re looking for, for example, you’d simply type “I’d like to open an RFP for marketing services.” That’s quite a change.
  • Informed choice. Picking up on the previous example, AI-enabled systems can recognize your request and present you with different options. For instance, it may tell you that you can choose to either buy marketing services under an existing, current contract with a supplier that covers your business unit or create a new one using a previous RFP as a template. And it didn’t do that in some strange, complex interface. It sends you a chat message just like your kids would do.
  • Start with review. This was covered a bit earlier, but it bears repeating. When a system is intelligent enough to prepopulate information for you, the way you interact with that system changes. Your job isn’t data entry; it’s review and approval. It’s a productivity gain. It’s an accuracy improvement. And most of all, it’s a quality of life improvement.
  • Manage exceptions. We haven’t focused much on automation, but AI-enabled systems do hold the promise of taking a process from beginning to end without the need for human intervention. We’ve already seen this with “simple” scenarios like invoice matching. By defining rules and applying machine learning to better understand what is and is not acceptable, we can expand this much further. Now you don’t need to spend your time reviewing what the system knows with certainty is fine. You do tactical reviews only when exceptions pop up.

What you need, where and when you need it

While this only scratches the surface, the day-to-day experience of someone using a system founded on these emerging technologies is a tremendous change. These changes are not merely superficial. They’re not just a matter of design. They are, quite simply, impossible to achieve without the advances that artificial intelligence provides. That’s why it seems so fitting to talk about AI’s potential to revolutionize the procurement user’s experience. Providing exactly the information that you need, at the right time, and in the most convenient location – that’s the ultimate expression of a system truly serving the needs of the user.

If this discussion has piqued your interest, we’ve got a lot more to share. Join us for SAP Ariba Live in Amsterdam, coming up April 23–25. In addition to compelling mainstage content, you can dig deeper in breakout sessions dedicated to these fascinating new technologies.

If you can’t join us in Amsterdam, we’ve got you covered as well. Take a look at Intelligent Procurement from SAP Ariba: Making Procurement Solutions Smarter, a new paper that provides more detail on our recent and upcoming innovations in the procurement technology space. There’s a lot of opportunity for technology to drive significant improvements. Today’s a great day to start learning more!


Scott Pezza

About Scott Pezza

As part of SAP Ariba's Digital Transformation Organization's Center of Excellence, Scott researches, compiles, and shares best-practice information to help SAP Ariba's customers get the most out of their investments. He has a dual focus on the emerging technologies (AI/ML, IoT, Blockchain, etc.) across the source-to-settle cycle, as well as a specific interest in the financial supply chain (invoice management, payments, discounting, and supply chain finance). His research helps inform strategic planning, performance measurement, and program execution. He has spent the past 17 years in the B2B technology space, in roles ranging from software development and support to research and consulting. Scott earned his BA in English and Philosophy from Clark University, his MBA from Boston University Graduate School of Management, and his JD from Boston University School of Law, where he served on the Executive Board of the Annual Review of Banking and Financial Law.